More Sophisticated Theology: The world’s worst theodicy

I want to give two thumbs up to John Loftus’s book, Why I Became an Atheist. Despite its title, it’s far more than the story of Loftus’s journey from Christian minister to outspoken atheist.  It’s really a thoughtful and well-documented dissection of religious arguments and theological claims. There are, for example, chapters on “The question of miracles,” “The problem of unanswered prayer,” “Did Jesus rise bodily from the dead?”, and so on.

And there are two nice chapters on the “problem of suffering,” in which Loftus takes on and destroys the pathetic arguments offered by the faithful for why a good and powerful God allows gratuitous suffering.

So read the book.  While so doing, I came across this quotation that Loftus uses to demonstrate how believers rationalize evil. The quote is so totally insane that I had to reproduce it. It’s on p. 222 of Loftus’s book, but the original source is pp. 177-181 of Brian Davies’s 2006 book The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil. (Davies is a well-known philospher of religion, now at Fordham University.)

The evil in evil suffered is not an existent entity.  It is not identifiable substance or positive quality.  Evil suffered occurs as existing things fail to be as good as they could be. In that case, however, I immediately conclude that the evil in evil suffered cannot be caused by God. For God, as I’ve argued, is the cause of the being of all that is real apart from himself, and the evil in evil suffered is not something with being, not something actual, and therefore, not something created by him. . . There are blind people. But blindness has no independent existence. There are blind people only because there are people who cannot see. In a similar way, evil suffered has no independent existence. . . it is still parasitic on goodness. . . the evil in evil suffered, I am saying, does not actually exist. . . The badness in a diseased cat is nothing real in the cat.

This is Sophisticated Theology™ at its finest: it simply waves away the problem of evil by denying that it—and suffering—exist.  And if suffering isn’t real, God wasn’t responsible.  Sophisticated Theology™ is characterized by two qualities: completely unsupported assertions and blatant obfuscation, often using fancy academic words. Both qualities are on view here.

Loftus takes the quote apart, but it’s almost self-refuting.  Ask an Afghan woman blinded by acid whether she is suffering in a real way, and whether her blindness is “real”.  And if blindness has no independent existence, does the HIV/AIDS virus?  And since that virus causes AIDS, does that disease lack an “independent existence”? Disease and suffering (the “evils” of Davies) are real phenomena—phenomena with physical causes that a benevolent and powerful god could have prevented, just as god could have prevented a fanatical Muslim from trying to blind women for going to school. Claiming that these things have “no independent existence” is just a cheap and oily way to get around the problem.

Re Davies, I’m going to repeat the George Orwell quote that comes in so handy when dealing with Sophisticated Theology™ (it was made in another context):

One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.

237 Comments

  1. coconnor1017
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    John Loftus and his blog “Debunking Christianity” saw me through the first two years of my apostasy. He has been a kind man to me and has privately offered support when I’ve lost my cool. Anger is a very real problem when losing faith. His honesty, intelligence, and compassion are wonderful. I also recommend the book he edited “The Christian Delusion”. The essay by Valerie Tarico is very useful there.

    • Greg Esres
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      “Anger is a very real problem when losing faith.”

      Anger at being deceived or anger at people who tell you things they have no real knowledge of?

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted July 31, 2012 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

        Yes.

        Along with anger at having wasted the potentially most productive period of life. Anger at having missed much of what life offers. Anger at having done what was unnecessary at best; destructive at worst, while much that is good went undone. Anger at having one’s every idea, thought and even statement repressed. Anger at being looked at as roadkill, as ignorant, or as despicable by people whom one thought to be friends. Anger at having “made a pilgrimage to save the human race, never realizing that the race had long gone by.”

  2. Posted July 31, 2012 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    It’s particularly troubling that Davies doesn’t even seem to engage with the decades-old literature. If the passage above is representative of his actual position (and there’s no reason to believe it isn’t), his “theodicy” wouldn’t have been published in any good journals.

    At least as far back as Rowe’s “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism” (1979) [JSTOR], philosophers have been defining ‘evil’ in terms of undeniably existing things. Indeed, Rowe’s classic statement of the Problem of Evil (p. 336) doesn’t even mention ‘evil’ when summarized; it mentions ‘intense suffering’ instead. One can only conclude that Davies is ignorant of the most important philosophical paper published on the Problem of Evil in the last 50 years, or has for some reason chosen to ignore it. I worry that the book in question is only intended for a semi-academic audience, given the above quotation and the publishing house.

  3. andreschuiteman
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Postmodern theodicy.

  4. gbjames
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    I think Orwell was wrong, though. There are a good number of very ordinary people who would nod and go along with this nonsense.

    • abrotherhoodofman
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      I would imagine Orwell understood your point, and was simply expressing sarcasm. But given your input, let’s modify his quote:

      One may belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: but ordinary men are fools, too.”

      Kind of banal, don’t you agree? Orwell was fighting a political war with his words, not employing them to create platitudes.

      • gbjames
        Posted July 31, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

        Go ahead. Shoot me down for trying to say something more interesting than “sub”.

        • abrotherhoodofman
          Posted July 31, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

          You say lots of interesting things. And I don’t like guns.
          ;)

          • gbjames
            Posted July 31, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

            Well, I hope “sub” does it for you next time! ;)

          • Posted July 31, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

            What about sandwiches?

            /@

            • David Leech
              Posted July 31, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

              How about sub and sandwiches. Now you can eat sandwiches underwater and how cool is that. God is truly wonderful.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

      And a pretty fair number of the intelligentsia who would see it for the psychobabble that it is.

    • RF
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

      Also, I suspect that there might have been some point in time at which we were not at war with Oceania.

  5. Michael Johnson
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    This is an old argument that goes back at least to Descartes.

    In Meditation III, Descartes offers his first proof of God’s existence. Then, in Meditation IV he takes up what might be called “the problem of error”. Since Descartes hasn’t yet “proven” the existence of the outside world, at this point in the work he’s not faced with the problem of evil (there might be no one out there suffering!)

    The problem of error goes: if God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, then he knows when I’m about to err (believe something false), can fix it, and desires nothing but good for me. But I do err (as Descartes stresses in Meditation I). So what’s the deal?

    Descartes first responds by diagnosing the source of error. Error arises when I’m faced with a range of options of things to believe, I have imperfect knowledge (I don’t know which is true with certainty) and I exercise my will to choose to believe something I’m not certain of, rather than suspending judgment. God can’t be blamed for giving me free will, so he’s not to blame for that aspect of error.

    Here’s where the Davies-style argument comes in. God can’t be blamed for my lack of knowledge either. The knowledge I have is fine– it’s knowledge. The knowledge I lack is not a thing, it’s nothing. It’s not some aspect of the knowledge that I have that’s malformed or broken, it’s just that, a pure lack. The analogy is something like: you can blame the maker of a refrigerator if it doesn’t make things cold. But you can’t blame the maker if it doesn’t make toast. Not making things cold is an imperfection in its workings. Not making toast is just a pure lack of an ability– it’s nothing wrong with the fridge. Conclusion: God’s not to blame for error.

    Sorry for the long post, just thought readers might appreciate some background. Descartes does see good and evil this way– evil is a mere lack, but it’s subtler there. He thinks evil is a lack of what you might call “good intention”. D would never say people with their faces melted off weren’t there (they’re made out of matter & souls, which are positive). He’d also say the feeling of pain was real (both formally and objectively).

    • Gary W
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

      So are you endorsing Descartes’s version of the argument, as you have described it? Because it seems to me just as nonsensical as Davies’s.

      • Michael Johnson
        Posted July 31, 2012 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

        No.

    • Posted July 31, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      “the feeling of pain is real…” In humans. In animals (which Descartes vivisected alive), I guess he’d say the pain is not real (or at least not experienced, despite their shrieks, as it takes having a “soul” to feel pain?)

    • gillt
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      I thought I recognized this argument from somewhere. I actually really appreciate its ingenuity and simplicity (not that it tracts with reality at all).

      Hell is a place or state of mind, we are often told by theologians, that is defined by an absence of god or divine love.

      I guess I never thought theodicy as the greatest theological problem.

    • papalinton
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

      “In Meditation III, Descartes offers his first proof of God’s existence.”

      I wonder how Descartes would have responded in light of post-Darwin knowledge?

      • Posted August 1, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

        I’d like to think that Descartes would have moved from non-denominational theism (he’s no Christian) to an even more skeptical position, given his vast intellect and interest in biosciences. In fact, given that one of the problems with Cartesian mechanism was embryology and development, it would be fascinating to contemplate what he would have thought of “evo-devo”.

  6. David T.
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    When you approach the problem (evil) and already know 100% what your solution is (god exists), then you get some bizarre ideas on how to get there. Obviously this is what the whole of fundamentaist christianity is all about (take global warming, creationism, evil, biblical literacy, etc.).

  7. Jeremy Nel
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Yes, this is the laughably “ingenious” doctrine of privatio boni, namely that evil isn’t really a thing; it’s just the privation of good.

    By such sophisticated metaphysical decrees, the problem of ‘how-evil-came-to-exist-if-my-100%-good-God-created-everything’ simply vanishes.

    I wish I could pull the same move with my taxes.

  8. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    Unbelievable, if it hadn’t been belief.

    And isn’t it obvious that “the evil in evil” is precisely enjoying, or denying, or being indifferent to, suffering?

  9. Kevin
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    “god could have prevented a fanatical Muslim from trying to blind women for going to school”

    How?

    • gbjames
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      Un-harden his heart? Strike him down with a bolt of lightning? Speak, for all to hear, in a loud voice, something like: “Don’t do that!”?

      Use your imagination. An all powerful deity should surely be able to pull this off.

      • Kevin
        Posted July 31, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

        So could society – especially by striking the man down. Is society guilty of allowing gratuitous suffering?

        • gbjames
          Posted July 31, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

          Of course.

    • Posted July 31, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      By appearing to tell people what the real religion is?

      By not passing by the other side when people suffer?

      By telling his followers that they are not doing it right?

    • horrabin
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      Turn the acid into water. Solves the free will problem too, because the fanatic still was able to choose to blind the woman. Really this is only difficult for non-existent deities.

    • Posted July 31, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      by being fucking omnipotent rather than the conveniently inept god that Christians trot out when omnipotence causes them problems in their delusion.

      • microraptor
        Posted July 31, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

        Omni-impotent?

        • Posted August 1, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

          Presumably that would be the opposite of the Lovecraftian deity Azathoth who is (nigh) omnipotent but completely mindless.

          • microraptor
            Posted August 2, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

            I was thinking more along the lines of the opposite of Shub-Niggurath, if you know what I mean ;-)

  10. Andy Dufresne
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    I’d like a t-shirt that has Jerry’s identification of Sophisticated Theology’s two qualities printed on it. It does seem to be the case that the word “sophisticated” is intended not so much to describe the theology but how the theologian views him- or herself. Hence the pomposity that typifies many of these characters.

  11. Posted July 31, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    You read this sophisticated theology and you wonder at the fact that this guy must have read it back to himself, while checking it for spelling errors, and never once noticed that what he had written was something that was so bad, I would be scared for my sanity if I had ever managed to produce those thoughts.

  12. Posted July 31, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    ‘ In a similar way, evil suffered has no independent existence’

    So why is his God going to send people to Hell for being evil, when evil has no independent existence?

    Why should I be damned to eternity for something which doesn’t even exist?

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

      God damn Carr, haven’t you learned anything reading this blog? You’ll be sent there (and I’ll be with you) for not believing silly stuff without evidence, for not kowtowing to despotic but unjust power, for not doing what the priest/imam/rabbi/pastor told you to do, possibly even for wearing a shirt with two types of fabrics; in short, for being a rational, caring, human individual. Evil schmeevil. Sheesh.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

      Well, if evil doesn’t exist, then the things that happen to people in Hell can’t be evil, so obviously Hell is not a bad place after all. It’s just a holiday camp that’s a little bit less upmarket than heaven.

      There. Problem fixed.

  13. Lynn A.
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Where does the so called “sophisticated” end and the outright sophistry begin?

    • lamacher
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

      It’s sophistry all the way down (or up).

  14. Laura Norder
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Very convenient argument for enabling God to have the credit for all good things, but have no responsibility for the bad things that happen.

    I take it that natural disasters are not considered as evil; otherwise I’m wondering how, say, volcanoes or tectonic plates can “fail to be as good as they can be”

    • RF
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

      It’s a shame that guy in Aurora failed to not kill all those people. I guess for some people, belief in God is more important than respecting what words mean.

  15. Another Matt
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    This is a variant of doctrine from the very first days of Christianity as influenced by Neoplatonism. You can read this for some background:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoplatonism_and_Christianity

    Now of course “old theology” doesn’t mean “good theology,” but it’s not “made up” in the same way that a lot of contemporary theology is.

    • gbjames
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      but it’s not “made up” in the same way

      The difference being WHEN it was made up?

      • Another Matt
        Posted July 31, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

        Yes, that’s right. I do think the time at which a bit of theological doctrine was written is important though — we usually say we might take the truth claims of religion as evidence they came from an omniscient being if they made testable predictions that came true reliably, but what we see is theologians makingstuffup to fit their religion when new evidence comes in from history or the sciences.

        This particular claim doesn’t meet basic standards for being a hypothesis, so it doesn’t matter when it was written. In any case the author quoted is at least drawing from tradition in the argument, which is in some weird way more “refreshing” than the usual contemporary confabulation.

        • gbjames
          Posted July 31, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

          It has importance in an historical sense. As far as truth-value goes, it doesn’t much matter when it was made up or what traditions it derives from.

    • Another Matt
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      (forgot sub)

    • Posted August 1, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      (orignal) Christianity ~= Neoplatonism + Judaism, for some bizarro operator “+”.

  16. Phoenix
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I agree that Davis’ approach to evil is stretching things a bit. That is what happens so often when you have two facts that seem at odds, yet must be reconciled. I am reminded mostly of some of the really “stupid” things that Quantum Physicists say about those things within their purview which are not only bizarre, but contradictory, yet seem acceptable within the clan and might perhaps even be factual. It is also a parallel to Dennett’s conclusion that consciousness does not actually exist, but is an illusion. From there, it is not much of a jump for bringing to mind that which is widely promoted and especially on this blog that free will does not exist, but is also illusory. Both of these positions would bring a reincarnated Orwell eagerly to his feet to fire off his famous dictum yet again.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

      Can you give me an Orwell quote that suggests he would regard Jerry’s position on free will as inherently ridiculous?

      Are you trying to compare the apparent contradictions in quantum theory (which occur in a microscopic scale quite outside our everyday experience), with the obvious incompatibility of an omnipotent benevolent God in a world full of evil? False comparison. One of these things is not like the other.

      • Phoenix
        Posted August 1, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

        The Orwell quote is as Jerry stated it. Free will is probably the most intuitive property of sentient, intelligent life; to deny it, the most counterintuitive position. Orwell would likely have picked up on this along with the rest of us honest sentient beings, and found its denial – in short — ridiculous. Free will, I think you would agree depends on consciousness and consciousness is something with which science has not been able to deal. If you doubt this, read Dennett’s seminal book on the subject “Consciousness Explained” which aside from its fraudulent title actually celebrates just little we know.

        Quantum Theory does not contradict itself, but does contradict classical physics in many respects – and always wins. The Quantum, being real at the smallest scale, is foundational to that which arises from it, such that if you [as Jerry does] stand on reality being deterministic as classic physics would seem to require, then you have built your house on sand, since science has proven beyond question that what we experience at its most basic level is probabilistic.

        On the other hand, you would expect no incompatibility between a God and that which He would have created. If He exists, then we must take Him as He is, not as we wish Him to be. Your rejection of a benevolent God, who would allow sin and pain, is appealing, even understanding. I dare say all of us would wish that such tensions not exist, but such is not the case in this corner of the universe. Is it surprising, then, that a substantial number of His beings would neither believe in nor honor Him? But that has nothing at all to do with the truth of His existence or non-existence.

    • MKray
      Posted August 1, 2012 at 4:06 am | Permalink

      You’ve been reading too many bad popularizations of quantum theory. If there were contradictions within it, then lasers, transistors, … the lot … wouldn’t work. Oh, and the Higgs ….

      • Phoenix
        Posted August 1, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

        You are exactly right that contradictions cannot and do not exist within Quantum Theory. The contradictions are between QT and Classical Physics and between QT and what most of us find to be reasonable. Yet they are so, and the knowledgeable accept them as being so. Which brings to mind Groucho’s famous line: “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”

  17. Posted July 31, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    as you say, Dr. Coyne, waving away the problem of evil by pretending it doesn’t exist. I so very much want to make Davies live with disease, starve to death, be tortured, etc to show him his philosophical nattering is only possible for someone who has no problems in their life.

  18. Scote
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    “The evil in evil suffered is not an existent entity. It is not identifiable substance or positive quality. Evil suffered occurs as existing things fail to be as good as they could be… the evil in evil suffered, I am saying, does not actually exist. . .”

    Hmm…if that is true then **sin** doesn’t exist either. No need for Jesus to die to forgive non-existent evil/sin.

    • Posted July 31, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

      Indeed, some religious folk often talk about “sins of omission”.

  19. Posted July 31, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    It was late in the spring of ’97, in the township of Beaver, PA, when I was first introduced to theodicy by my father, though not by name. We were joining the remains of my mother with those of two of my brothers — one older, one younger — and had just left the service. My father was driving, apparently miffed by the minister’s choice of passages from the Book of Job to deliver in his rather prosaic sermon of which I remember nothing. He began ranting about how such people would speak of “God” as everything and as everywhere, but when faced with the logical consequent of such statements, that God was then Evil as well as good, they would backtrack. This obviously widened my rather doe-eyed, teenaged conception of “God” that led to viewing God as indifferent, as more ethereal and non-intervening, to “God” as an idea, and then, ultimately, to the point where if “God” wasn’t all those wonderful and good things which the religious claimed of it but that it could not possibly be, then what point was there in believing in the idea at all? God left my life as a shrug. My major act of apostasy was a realization that the supernatural did not exist, or at least that the term itself was incoherent.

    • raven
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

      that God was then Evil as well as good, they would backtrack.

      That is what god says in Isaiah.

      Isaiah 45:7 – Online Parallel Bible
      ible.cc/isaiah/45-7.htm

      I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the … God; and the passage should be limited in the interpretation to this design. … and perhaps as early as Isaiah, there seems no good reason to doubt (Hyde, de Relig.

      God claims the credit for “creating evil.”

      Very rarely will xians quote this though. The vast majority have no idea what their magic book actually says.

      • Posted August 1, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

        This is my favourite passage in the bible, because it is one of the most embarrassing to believers.

        (Matthew 6:1-6 is also fun, because no Christians seem to obey this clear commandment.)

  20. Veroxitatis
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    It is hardly an exact analogy but one is tempted to respond the good Professor with the words and actions of Dr. Johnson on being told by Boswell that it was impossible to refute Bishop Berkely’s sophistry. “I refute it thus” said Johnson as he struck his foot mightily against a large stone.

  21. Posted July 31, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    “Evil suffered occurs as existing things fail to be as good as they could be.” — Davies

    Davies must have lead an incredibly sheltered life.

    • raven
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

      “Evil suffered occurs as existing things fail to be as good as they could be.” — Davies

      It’s just bafflegab and not even good bafflegab.

      The 12 dead in Aurora, Colorado might not be “as good as they could be” because they are now dead. But they didn’t do it to themselves, someone shot them for no good reason.

  22. Posted July 31, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Haven’t yet read the other comments. Sorry if I duplicate someone.

    I think I see what Davies is trying to say. He’s trying to draw an analogy between good/evil and heat/cold.

    Cold doesn’t exist independently as its own entity. It’s only the absence of heat. It is defined negatively.

    But this is not an apt analogy. Any kind of suffering you can name will demonstrate positive characteristics. Davies must have thought he was being pretty slick by choosing blindness as an example. After all, blindness is only the absence of sight, right?

    He’s not considering the cause of the blindness (which may have been agonizing), or the real, positive impact blindness has on a person’s life.

    Furthermore, even if cold is not “something with positive being”, it can cause a whole lot of suffering. If we only define “dryness” as “not wet”, does that mean dryness isn’t a real state of being?

    I’m reminded of Derrida’s différance.

  23. Posted July 31, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the nod Jerry.

    Your readers may be interested in knowing I’m teaching an online class from my book in August for CFI:

    http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2012/07/ill-be-teaching-online-class-for-cfi-in.html

  24. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    The “evil isn’t real” takes an even worse form in Christian science in which illness is curable by just realizing it isn’t real kinda like Keanu Reeves dodging bullets in “The Matrix”. (This leads to an old joke about the difference between Buddhism and Christian Science. The Christian Scientist thinks mind is real and suffering is an illusion. For a Buddhist it’s the other way around.)

    To give credit to the other side, Christian theologian Terrence Tilley has a fairly good book “The Evils of Theodicy” which argues that no one should ever try to construct a theodicy at any time any where!!!

  25. Christopher
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    By that reasoning, then goodness experienced is equally “not an existent entity”. It is merely occurs as “existing things fail to be” as evil as they could be…

  26. corio37
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    Cicero said it before Orwell:

    “Sed nescio quo modo nihil tam absurde dici potest quod non dicatur ab aliquo philosophorum”

    There is nothing so ridiculous that some philosopher has not said it.

    De Divinatione (Book II, chapter LVIII, sec 119).

  27. dguller
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    I think everyone needs to keep in mind the background system in order to understand the idea that evil is a privation.

    The basic idea is that something is good to the degree to which it actualizes its nature. For example, a triangle with straight lines is better than a triangle with crooked lines, because it actualizes its triangle nature to a greater degree. In this system, the more something actualizes its nature, the more actual reality it is, and the more good it is considered to be. So, there is a necessary connection between the degree of reality in X and the degree of goodness in X. That is also why there is the idea that everything that exists must have some goodness, simply by virtue of the fact that it exists.

    If you accept this framework, then the idea that evil is privation of being makes more sense, because goodness is associated with actual being, and since the absence of goodness is evil, then evil must be the absence of actual being. It is the failure of something to actualize its nature, and thus for it to fall short of its full potential. As Davies writes in another book: “a thing is only bad because something which ought to be there is not there … a kind of non-being which only exists because something is failing in some respect” (The Thought of Thomas Aquinas, p. 91).

    It is like a hole, which is not anything itself, but is defined according to what exists around it. The hole’s existence is parasitic upon the reality of the matter around it, much like evil’s existence is parasitic upon the reality of what exists around it. And yet you can still suffer by falling into a hole, because the absence has a real impact upon the world, much like the absence of goodness has an impact upon the world in the form of the suffering of evil.

    Anyway, that’s the general idea.

    There are problems with it, such as what sense can be assigned to “degrees of actual being”, as in “X is more real than Y”, and how one can even identify the best actualization of something’s nature, but any criticism of this account would be best directed to a proper presentation of it, rather than a caricature.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

      “There are problems with it,”

      That’s quite an understatement.

      “any criticism of this account would be best directed to a proper presentation of it, rather than a caricature.”

      Any criticism of it should be directed at how it coincides with reality, not in the context of some imaginary hypothetical world.

      Most of the readers of this blog are familiar with the concept of Plato’s ideal forms, and I’m sure most of us reject it for the same reason I do and the same reason philosophers since Plato have rejected it: it bears no relation to reality. “Perfect” ideals of triangles and sentient beings are not more real than triangle-like things or intelligent animals in nature, they’re less real. They’re the approximations our minds create to reduce the raw input from reality into concepts our cognitive processes can work with.

      An ebola virus isn’t any less real than the person it slowly kills or the suffering that person feels in his brain.

      • dguller
        Posted July 31, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

        Truthspeaker:

        Any criticism of it should be directed at how it coincides with reality, not in the context of some imaginary hypothetical world.

        So, you can never criticize a system based upon its own definitions leading to contradictions? That seems unnecessarily restrictive. Surely, you can object to a system on the basis of internal inconsistency and external falsification?

        Most of the readers of this blog are familiar with the concept of Plato’s ideal forms, and I’m sure most of us reject it for the same reason I do and the same reason philosophers since Plato have rejected it: it bears no relation to reality.

        Actually, the account is Aristotelian.

        “Perfect” ideals of triangles and sentient beings are not more real than triangle-like things or intelligent animals in nature, they’re less real. They’re the approximations our minds create to reduce the raw input from reality into concepts our cognitive processes can work with.

        First, that would imply that mathematics is nothing but an approximation that derives its validity from empirical confirmation. I don’t think mathematicians would agree with you.

        Second, what exactly are they approximations of? Either there are triangles, which we try to approximate, or there aren’t triangles, and then what exactly are we representing in our minds?

        An ebola virus isn’t any less real than the person it slowly kills or the suffering that person feels in his brain.

        An ebola virus is real, and it is good insofar as it replicates within an infected cell, causes lysis, and then infects other cells. Its activity is evil for the infected organism, because it damages its ability to sustain its own life, and thus interferes with its ability to be what it should be. In other words, a good X can be evil for Y.

        • Gary W
          Posted July 31, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

          An ebola virus is real, and it is good insofar as it replicates within an infected cell, causes lysis, and then infects other cells. Its activity is evil for the infected organism, because it damages its ability to sustain its own life, and thus interferes with its ability to be what it should be.

          But it is in the nature of the infected organism to be damaged by the ebola virus. The damage “actualizes its nature.” Therefore, by your argument, the damage to the infected organism is good.

          If this conclusion strikes you as absurd, maybe you should take that as a sign that there’s something seriously wrong with your argument.

          • dguller
            Posted August 1, 2012 at 2:57 am | Permalink

            Gary:

            But it is in the nature of the infected organism to be damaged by the ebola virus. The damage “actualizes its nature.” Therefore, by your argument, the damage to the infected organism is good.

            It is good for the infecting agent, but it is not good for the infected agent, because it inhibits its ability to flourish.

        • truthspeaker
          Posted August 1, 2012 at 4:40 am | Permalink

          “So, you can never criticize a system based upon its own definitions leading to contradictions”

          Sure you can. But you don’t have to.

          “First, that would imply that mathematics is nothing but an approximation that derives its validity from empirical confirmation.”

          Well, obviously.

          “Second, what exactly are they approximations of? Either there are triangles, which we try to approximate, or there aren’t triangles, and then what exactly are we representing in our minds?”

          There are things more complicated than triangles that we can use the abstract concept of triangle to describe.

          “An ebola virus is real, and it is good insofar as it replicates within an infected cell, causes lysis, and then infects other cells. Its activity is evil for the infected organism, because it damages its ability to sustain its own life, and thus interferes with its ability to be what it should be. In other words, a good X can be evil for Y.”

          And that refutes the theologian’s argument.

          • truthspeaker
            Posted August 1, 2012 at 5:25 am | Permalink

            For example, if my doctor told me my asthma was caused by an imbalance in my bodily humours, I wouldn’t address that in the context of the theory of bodily humours, I would address the fact that she was using a medical model from the Middle Ages that had been discredited centuries ago.

            If someone’s argument depends on an Aristotelian framework, then they have already conceded the argument.

            • dguller
              Posted August 1, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

              Truthspeaker:

              Well, obviously.

              Really? Mathematics is an approximation of empirical reality? Wow. So, mathematical proofs are unnecessary. We should conduct an empirical study to gain true mathematical knowledge?

              There are things more complicated than triangles that we can use the abstract concept of triangle to describe.

              But if those things are not triangles, then what are they? Either triangles are there, albeit in an imperfect form, or they are in our minds. If they are there, then you have been refuted. If they are in our minds, then we effectively engage in introspection, which does not get us knowledge about the world.

              And that refutes the theologian’s argument.

              Not necessarily. Anything that is a mixture of actuality (what is) and potentiality (what could be) necessarily involves a mixture of good (i.e. actuality) and bad (i.e. potentiality). According to Thomism, only God can be Pure Act, i.e. actual with no potentiality. For created beings to be purely good would require that they be God, which is contradictory. The classical theist response would be that God is responsible for the arrangement of reality, such that evil is possible, and yet he cannot be called evil, because he is Pure Act. You can object to this account that is isn’t fair and doesn’t seem right, but that’s no argument, because one could reply to Copernicus and Darwin in the same way, and that has no impact upon the truth of their theories.

              If someone’s argument depends on an Aristotelian framework, then they have already conceded the argument.

              That assumes that Aristotle’s framework has been refuted. Perhaps it was just bypassed and ignored, which is not the same thing as a refutation. There are good reasons to think that this is the case, i.e. the rejection of formal and final causes by mechanistic philosophy during the Enlightenment did not involve a refutation of those causes, but only a ridiculing of them, and then bypassing them altogether, which actually resulted in a great deal of successful science, but then led to other philosophical absurdities.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink

                “Mathematics is an approximation of empirical reality?”

                Yes.

                “Wow. So, mathematical proofs are unnecessary.”

                That doesn’t follow at all.

                “But if those things are not triangles, then what are they? ”

                They are things for which “triangle” is a useful abstraction.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 9:28 am | Permalink

                The theologian above says that God is not responsible for the existence of suffering. But since, in their view, God created the universe such that the ebola virus would exist, and since as you concede the effects of the ebola virus are evil from the perspective of its victims in that it involves their suffering, then God is responsible for the existence of suffering.

              • dguller
                Posted August 2, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

                truthspeaker:

                “Mathematics is an approximation of empirical reality?”
                Yes.

                Then why don’t mathematicians do empirical studies to derive their theorems? After all, mathematics is supposed to be primary about the empirical world, and thus the empirical world should be the root of mathematical knowledge. Also, why is mathematics so much more precise than the empirical world?

                “Wow. So, mathematical proofs are unnecessary.”
                That doesn’t follow at all.

                Sure, it does. The best way to mathematical truth is by doing an empirical study in the world. We should measure all triangles and add up their internal angles to know that they add up to 180 degrees, for example. That’s what it means to ground mathematical truth in the empirical world.

                They are things for which “triangle” is a useful abstraction.

                And that is what?

    • Gary W
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

      So, by this argument, if it is in someone’s nature to, say, have sex with children, then by molesting children he is “actualizing his nature” and the child molestation is therefore good. And you think this idea has merit, do you?

      • dguller
        Posted July 31, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

        Gary:

        So, by this argument, if it is in someone’s nature to, say, have sex with children, then by molesting children he is “actualizing his nature” and the child molestation is therefore good. And you think this idea has merit, do you?

        If that someone is a human being, then the question is whether being a child molester would be conducive to their flourishing. I think even Sam Harris would agree that child molestation is not only intrinsically harmful to an individual by leading to sociopathy, isolation from the human community, a sense of guilt and shame, depression, prosecution, incarceration, estrangement, and so on, but also damaging to the well-being of the victimized children. So, it would follow that being a child molester actually inhibits the actualization of one’s human nature.

        • Gary W
          Posted July 31, 2012 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

          If that someone is a human being, then the question is whether being a child molester would be conducive to their flourishing.

          Huh? Where did that come from? You didn’t say anything about “flourishing.” You defined good in terms of “actualizing” a thing’s “nature.” And that may be completely incompatible with flourishing.

          So, it would follow that being a child molester actually inhibits the actualization of one’s human nature.

          But human nature includes suffering. It is in our nature to suffer.

          • dguller
            Posted August 1, 2012 at 2:51 am | Permalink

            Gary:

            Huh? Where did that come from? You didn’t say anything about “flourishing.” You defined good in terms of “actualizing” a thing’s “nature.” And that may be completely incompatible with flourishing.

            That is actually the definition of “flourishing” in the Aristotelian framework that Davies is operating within.

            But human nature includes suffering. It is in our nature to suffer.

            In one sense, yes, that is true, but is suffering the best exemplification of humanity? Does suffering optimize our best capacities? Does suffering enhance our lives? When you see someone suffering for no reason, do you feel elevated and inspired to model your life on theirs? I don’t think so. There are lots of properties of human nature, and certainly suffering is one of them, but there is also a hierarchy involved.

            • Vaal
              Posted August 1, 2012 at 7:18 am | Permalink

              dguller,

              I’ve been around the block with folks on Feser’ site, including back and forth with Feser himself, and the liabilities and problems of the Thomistic Aristotelian arguments stick out like a sore thumb every time. A big issue is the fact/value distinction. The T-Aristotelian has to give a good account of how he is moving from any set of facts to a value/normative statement. And this is where they fail so miserably. The T-A wants to identify objective value, but in doing so he moves from a bunch of descriptive statements of “What X does” to normative statements “What X ought to do,” and the person doing this clearly imports a subjective value criteria.

              The problem arises, as it so obviously has yet again in your attempts to defend the idea; the subjectivity of your selection is glaring and not at all indicative of a discovery of an objective criteria for this determination.

              This is why you have been caught out equivocating, first starting with the claim that something is good based on “what it does” and then, when this doesn’t work, switching to “what causes it to flourish.” Well…”flourishing” is some new criteria – now it turns out the final cause is NOT derived objectively on what something does but rather on it’s meeting some OTHER criteria. When talking of this “flourishing” criteria you start saying things like: “but is suffering the BEST exemplification of humanity? Does suffering optimize our BEST capacities?

              “Best?” Right there is the question-begging value statement, you keep smuggling in. What would “best” mean? It can’t be simply based on observation of “what people do” because you need some imported criteria to SELECT from among what we do and say “THESE actions are ‘best/good’ and THOSE aren’t.

              Then you go on to talk of how some actions would tend to inspire or elevate us to model our lives. Well, then THAT is the criteria you are using for something’s final cause/purpose and normative statement. This is a criteria YOU have brought in to select from all the possible fact statements about something’s nature.
              Basically, you like certain facts about our nature over others and say “these are the ones we ought to encourage”…while pretending you are discovering some objective normative essence merely from what something does.

              But then we can ask “Well…why is ‘being elevated and inspired a good thing, a normative thing?” If you go back to “well it’s an objective part of our nature that we can be elevated and inspired” or whatever, you are stuck in the same circle and you’ve never left, because then it will be pointed out that all sorts of other contradictory things are part of our nature (e.g. biases, selfishness, tendency toward physical entropy, etc).

              This attempt to identify an “objective” final cause is so obviously subjective and the Thomistic Aristotelian just refuses to recognize the subjective criteria, the outside value theory, that he is importing to select among “is” statements to get his “ought” statement.

              (I also brought up to Feser how the theory of evolution seems quite problematic to this idea of final cause/purpose, insofar as he admits it’s an appeal to norma, and populations evolve/survive insofar as certain individuals DEPART from norms at the right time).

              Vaal.

            • Gary W
              Posted August 1, 2012 at 9:28 am | Permalink

              That is actually the definition of “flourishing” in the Aristotelian framework that Davies is operating within.

              Then you should have said that you’re defining good in terms of “flourishing” rather “actualizing” a thing’s “nature.” And this raises the question of what you mean by “flourishing,” how we should balance competing “flourishings” to evaluate the goodness of an act, and other questions. Your theory needs a lot of work before it is even coherent.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted July 31, 2012 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

          Well, no. You’re implicitly invoking the social consequences on the child molester to demonstrate that child-molesting is not ‘good’ for him. But suppose he could get away with it, every time, with no comebacks, then surely it would be ‘good’ for him (in actualizing his nature)?

          In other words, it’s like a zero-sum game – what’s ‘good’ for A is bad for B. That doesn’t help us, looking in from the outside, determine which is good and which is bad, does it.

          • dguller
            Posted August 1, 2012 at 2:55 am | Permalink

            Infiniteimprobability:

            Well, no. You’re implicitly invoking the social consequences on the child molester to demonstrate that child-molesting is not ‘good’ for him. But suppose he could get away with it, every time, with no comebacks, then surely it would be ‘good’ for him (in actualizing his nature)?

            If he was a human being, then no, it would not be good for him. If he was a new being that was not a human being, but lived amongst them as a predator, then yes, that would be good for him. In that case, he would be a new species other than human.

            In other words, it’s like a zero-sum game – what’s ‘good’ for A is bad for B. That doesn’t help us, looking in from the outside, determine which is good and which is bad, does it.

            It is not always a zero-sum game. Sometimes what is good for A is also good for B, but yes, often what is good for A is bad for B in the sense that A’s actualizing of its nature inhibits B’s actualizing of its nature.

            And determining what is good and bad is secondary to there being good and bad. In other words, just because something is really hard to figure out does not falsify the ideas involved. Newton’s three-body problem did not invalidate Newtonian mechanics.

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted August 1, 2012 at 4:34 am | Permalink

              I think you just implicitly defined one of the characteristics of being human as, ‘not enjoying molesting children’. I’m not so sure. Certainly there is a strong social bias against molesting children, for good reasons (among which, it’s not good for the children). But as we know, humans are capable of all sorts of behaviour, much of which has extremely bad consequences for other humans (just check out some of the Old Testament for examples…)

              I’m just not sure that you can define ‘human’ nature so neatly and precisely. If we’re going to specify child-molesting as bad for humans, then why not profiteering (which would condemn most finance executives)? Suppose I define human (male) nature as ‘being naturally inclined to have sex with anything that moves’, can you say that definition is incorrect?

              • dguller
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 6:16 am | Permalink

                Infiniteprobabilit:

                I think you just implicitly defined one of the characteristics of being human as, ‘not enjoying molesting children’. I’m not so sure. Certainly there is a strong social bias against molesting children, for good reasons (among which, it’s not good for the children). But as we know, humans are capable of all sorts of behaviour, much of which has extremely bad consequences for other humans (just check out some of the Old Testament for examples…)

                Our social interactions are part of our nature, because who we are often depends upon our surroundings and context. Human nature is not an isolated aspect of a particular individual, but inevitably involves our social bonds, because they are key influences upon our personalities and selves. As such, our flourishing necessarily involves our relationship to others, and has to make reference to those relationships.

                And you are correct that humans “are capable of all sorts of behaviour”, but some contributes to our well-being and flourishing, and some does not. That is also Sam Harris’ view, and that scientific investigation can contribute to understanding which behaviors improve our well-being, and which do not. However, it is presupposed that there is such a thing as human nature that has a differential expression, some of which is positive and some of which is negative.

                I’m just not sure that you can define ‘human’ nature so neatly and precisely.

                That is true. It is not a mathematical equation, after all. Furthermore, given evolutionary theory, we are unable to say whether an individual that appears to be human at this time is not the precursor of a new species in the future, which means that all our conclusions about this are essentially tentative. The inherent fuzziness in the world makes such definitions extraordinarily difficult.

                If we’re going to specify child-molesting as bad for humans, then why not profiteering (which would condemn most finance executives)? Suppose I define human (male) nature as ‘being naturally inclined to have sex with anything that moves’, can you say that definition is incorrect?

                You can condemn financial executives. Their purpose is to maximize profits for their corporations, irrespective of whether that results in greater harm to the community. A good financial executive may be a bad human being, after all.

                Also, if you want to say that the male nature is to have sex with anything that moves, then you should have some empirical evidence of such behavior in males. Do most of the males that you know attempt to copulate with rats, with projectiles, with birds? Those are all things “that move”.

                I think the bigger problem, which you allude to, is what to do with empirical data regarding human behavior. How do you pick out what counts as human nature, and what counts as human nature being thwarted somehow? So, you have behavior B, and the question is whether it is an expression of human nature X or the result of inhibiting human nature Y? After all, it is conceivable that most individuals have human nature Y, but are thwarted by their environment. In fact, this is what most ethical traditions say, i.e. most people are not ideal exemplars of virtue.

    • Another Matt
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

      All of the discussion on dguller’s post really just shows how seriously problematic philosophical conceptions of “essences” are. They’re both for too permissive and far too restrictive to be of any use at all.

      I think somewhere in “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” Dennett says something like “Nothing interesting enough to discuss could possibly have an essence” (I don’t remember the exact wording). This needs repeating, over and over.

      • Posted July 31, 2012 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

        This is pretty much the point I was about to make.

        In a sense, Davies is right. There is no Platonic “good”, no Platonic “evil”. I think it was Adam Savage who said something like “evil is a little man at a desk scared of losing his job.”

        Dguller’s exposition is irrelevant. When we talk about “evil”, we’re talking about things that happen that have adverse consequences. We’re talking about a family with small children losing their home because of a natural disaster, or because the employee of a bank feels compelled to foreclose in order to keep his own job safe. “Evil” is not some kind of force that admits of being defined in the way dguller attempts.

        • dguller
          Posted August 1, 2012 at 3:05 am | Permalink

          Musical beef:

          Dguller’s exposition is irrelevant. When we talk about “evil”, we’re talking about things that happen that have adverse consequences. We’re talking about a family with small children losing their home because of a natural disaster, or because the employee of a bank feels compelled to foreclose in order to keep his own job safe. “Evil” is not some kind of force that admits of being defined in the way dguller attempts.

          What is an “adverse” consequence? An adverse event is supposed to be an event that acts against something else. What is the “something else” other than what one considers to be good? Sure, you can object to the Aristotelian definition of “goodness”, but citing adverse consequences as a falsification of them just doesn’t work, because adversity presupposes goodness to be opposed.

      • dguller
        Posted August 1, 2012 at 3:01 am | Permalink

        Another Matt:

        All of the discussion on dguller’s post really just shows how seriously problematic philosophical conceptions of “essences” are. They’re both for too permissive and far too restrictive to be of any use at all.

        Just because essences are often hard to determine does not falsify the very concept of “essence”. In fact, the concept of “essence” is essential to science, because I am not studying this particular thing to learn about this particular thing, but about what it is about this particular thing can tell me about other things like it. If there was no underlying commonality between these things, then prediction becomes impossible, and thus falsification becomes impossible, and thus science becomes impossible. Nominalism just undermines both science, and itself.

        I think somewhere in “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” Dennett says something like “Nothing interesting enough to discuss could possibly have an essence” (I don’t remember the exact wording). This needs repeating, over and over.

        Why does he say that? I have the book, and have read other Dennett works, but haven’t gotten around to reading it. Is he specifically talking about biological organisms, or is he speaking in general?

        • Another Matt
          Posted August 1, 2012 at 6:44 am | Permalink

          OK, let’s not let this become the same discussion we had on choiceindying a year or so ago (the never-ending Teleology thread where Feser showed up). :)

          There are degrees of essentialism — I’m talking about the usual Aristotelian/Thomist version, where you can point to “the” essence of something. You’ve been talking about it in terms of “the nature” of something, which is less restrictive.

          We might say that it is in “the nature” of a gay person to have same-sex romantic/sexual relationships. An A/T philosopher will confidently tell you that no, the essence of human sexuality is procreation, so gay relationships are against a gay person’s human nature. Similarly, an A/T philosopher will tell you that you can’t think without an immaterial soul, because the pieces that make your body don’t themselves think — for them the “essence” of thought has to project all the way down.

          The kind of essentialism you seem to be espousing is something a little more like Wittgenstein’s “family resemblance” — it’s like essence but with much fuzzier boundaries, without the insistence that any thing has to have an essence that defines it as that thing qua that thing, and with the provision that any property a thing has might emerge from something that does not have that property (i.e. “allows reductionism”).

          This is the only concept of “essence” that could have any possible use in science,* because it helps avoid “fallacy of the beard” errors when it comes to, say, hunting for the first being that had the essential quality of being a human (or mammal, or alive). And it does not assume the barest forms of nominalism we might be worried about.

          But as the other commenters have pointed out with their examples, if you fail to distinguish between the A/T essence concept and the much more permissive “family resemblances,” “emergent properties,” and other quasi-essentialist concepts, your “in the nature of” doesn’t carry much meaning for the privatio boni argument, because everything that happens to something is in its nature.

          *Something like a strict essentialism might be the right way to approach fundamental particles in physics, since there’s no lower level to project a particle’s behavior; the particle is defined by its behavior and not by “what it is made of.”

          • dguller
            Posted August 1, 2012 at 8:24 am | Permalink

            Another Matt:

            The kind of essentialism you seem to be espousing is something a little more like Wittgenstein’s “family resemblance” — it’s like essence but with much fuzzier boundaries, without the insistence that any thing has to have an essence that defines it as that thing qua that thing, and with the provision that any property a thing has might emerge from something that does not have that property (i.e. “allows reductionism”).

            Well, I would say that it essence and nature, except that it lacks clear boundaries, mainly due to our inability to conceive or perceive reality at a fine grain enough level. So, there is a boundary, but we lack the perceptual and intellectual resolution to perceive or conceive it. Reason says that there must be something in common, but it does not follow that we can know what that something is.
            This is the only concept of “essence” that could have any possible use in science,* because it helps avoid “fallacy of the beard” errors when it comes to, say, hunting for the first being that had the essential quality of being a human (or mammal, or alive). And it does not assume the barest forms of nominalism we might be worried about.

            It only avoids nominalism if you agree that there is a shared nature between individuals. Otherwise, you have nominalism, and the destruction of all knowledge.

            But as the other commenters have pointed out with their examples, if you fail to distinguish between the A/T essence concept and the much more permissive “family resemblances,” “emergent properties,” and other quasi-essentialist concepts, your “in the nature of” doesn’t carry much meaning for the privatio boni argument, because everything that happens to something is in its nature.

            I don’t think so, because it fails to distinguish between substantial and accidental properties. There are a lot of things that something can do, and that can happen to it, which are not essential to it being what it is. For example, a ball can be different colors, but being a color is not essential to being a ball, but rather it is accidental. So, you need to narrow your range of properties to exclude the unnecessary and accidental. Once you do that, and accept that there must be something in common that is shared by all members of a particular set, then the argument gets traction. You just need to add the idea that goodness is associated with the maximal actualization of this essence or nature (i.e. the “something in common”), and you’re there.

            • Another Matt
              Posted August 1, 2012 at 8:38 am | Permalink

              I don’t have time to get into the weeds on this, but there are two important points I’d like to clarify:

              Reason says that there must be something in common, but it does not follow that we can know what that something is.

              In fact it doesn’t even follow that we can ask appropriate questions about something like that. It’s not true that there must be something essential that distinguishes reptiles from birds, say, because classification of birds and reptiles as essential already begs that question. “Bird” and “Reptile” are handy chunkifying predicates that make inductive work with them easier/possible, but we shouldn’t assume that because we have those words it’s appropriate to ask essentialist questions about them.

              For example, a ball can be different colors, but being a color is not essential to being a ball, but rather it is accidental.

              This might be true on the first go, but introduce dogs that love to chew balls into the environment and suddenly being a color that the dogs are blind to might become a very important feature of being a ball.

              Essence/accident can gain some traction only to the extent that the analysis takes into account the surrounding context, and in fact the possible surrounding contexts (for various relevant values of “possible”). But speaking of essence as absolutely inherent to something (regardless of context or environment) is just simply an error.

              In this sense, “Tiger’s Lunch” is an essential property of humans, which is why we have evolved various avoidance mechanisms. But if that’s so, then you can replace “essential property” with “property” and get on with your life.

              • dguller
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 9:07 am | Permalink

                Another Matt:

                It’s not true that there must be something essential that distinguishes reptiles from birds, say, because classification of birds and reptiles as essential already begs that question. “Bird” and “Reptile” are handy chunkifying predicates that make inductive work with them easier/possible, but we shouldn’t assume that because we have those words it’s appropriate to ask essentialist questions about them.

                If there is nothing in common in reality between individuals in a group, then classification is all in our minds, and doesn’t give us knowledge about reality. It is interesting about human psychology and how we think, but it doesn’t help us understand the external world at all. It is like understanding the delusional world of a psychotic individual. It’s pretty clear that anything about the external world from within that perspective would be suspect.

                But speaking of essence as absolutely inherent to something (regardless of context or environment) is just simply an error.

                Agreed, and yet you can say that given that context, an individual has a particular nature that it is striving to actualize. Perhaps it would be better to say that rather than essence being intrinsic or extrinsic, it is holistic, i.e. gets its meaning and significance from the total context.

                In this sense, “Tiger’s Lunch” is an essential property of humans, which is why we have evolved various avoidance mechanisms. But if that’s so, then you can replace “essential property” with “property” and get on with your life.

                I don’t think it is an essential property. An essential property is a property that helps to define what something is, and without that property, it could not be what it is. It is narrower than the total properties of what a being could do or what could happen to a being. Within the Aristotelian framework, it involves a striving towards the achievement of a final end (or more). No human strives to become Tiger’s Lunch, even though being eaten by a tiger is a possibility for humans. There is a directedness involved in an essence that points towards particular possible outcomes and behaviors of a being. It doesn’t do any good to just say X is possible, and therefore is part of X’s nature. “Nature” and “essence” are more narrowly defined.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink

                Of course classification is all in our minds, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t help us understand reality.

              • dguller
                Posted August 2, 2012 at 5:13 am | Permalink

                Truthspeaker & Another Matt:

                Here’s another way to look at the problem of vagueness for essentialism.

                I presume that we can agree with the following propositions:

                (1) There are cases where we know that a skin cell is definitely on the nose
                (2) There are cases where we know that a skin cell is definitely off the nose
                (3) There are cases where we simply do not know or cannot say whether a skin cell is on the nose.

                The question is what follows from these propositions.

                My position is that (1), (2) and (3) are consistent, i.e. they do not together imply a logical contradiction. If that is true, then (3) does not negate (1) and (2). And there are good reasons for that.

                A fuzzy boundary between X and Y presupposes that we can correctly classify X and Y to begin with. What is the fuzzy boundary between otherwise? I mean, we can clearly identify a skin cell that is on the nose, and we can clearly identify a skin cell that is definitely off the nose. But there are some skin cells where we simply do not know whether they are on or off the nose. However, that does not necessarily imply that we never knew if a skin cell was on or off the nose to begin with.

                That would be like arguing that we have true perceptions, and we have false perceptions, and sometimes we have perceptions that we do not know if they are true or false. Therefore, we never have true or false perceptions. And I’m pretty sure that you can quickly see that that argument is a fallacious one.

                Any thoughts?

                @ Matt:

                I agree that not every linguistic term necessarily refers to a “crisp ontological boundary”. However, it does not follow that such boundaries do not exist.

              • Another Matt
                Posted August 2, 2012 at 7:29 am | Permalink

                dguller, the reason we’re talking past each other is we’re each arguing against something much strong than the other is willing to defend.

                So, yes, there are clearly some skin cells that are on the cheek and others that are off the cheek. But there are some where it’s neither a metaphysical nor an empirical question whether it is on the cheek, because “cheek” is not nearly well-defined enough of a concept to make that kind of distinction. That’s not how the word is used.

                My contention is that for essentialism to live up to what it wants to guarantees, there would need to be a metaphysical fact of the matter about the borderline cases, based on the essence of “cheek.” Then it would only be a question of whether we are empirically sophisticated enough to determine which of the two metaphysical categories a given skin cell fell under. I have said I think the assumption that there is a fact of the matter begs the question if it is assumed that the concept “cheek” cleaves out such a well-defined essential category that needs to be hunted for.

                I’m describing a stronger essentialism than you’ve been defending, because you agree that it could either be that we don’t have a sophisticated enough empirical faculty to make the determination, or that the ontology is actually undetermined — you’ve kicked it up an epistemological level, and it’s at that level I meet you and say “that’s not how the word ‘cheek’ is used.”

                But your insistence on taking this to mean I (and others) say that such boundaries can’t or don’t exist is starting to get annoying. There are words that, unlike “cheek,” do point to such a cleavage in the world (e.g. “hydrogen” and “not-hydrogen”). And there are words that do describe clear situations for medium-sized objects and normal-sized temporal chunks of experience (e.g. “hanging from” a clothesline or “draped over” a chair or “on top of” a table).

                The table example is good because how we use the phrase “on top of a table” is only guaranteed to work for medium-sized objects. If we had to look microscopically at the table, there would be no fact of the matter about some molecules — those for which “on top of” doesn’t work appropriately, like specs of dust perched on a vertical crag at the very edge of the table, and those for which it’s impossible to determine whether they should be counted as part of the table. There isn’t a clear enough “essence of table” or “essence of the ‘on top of’ relation” for there to be a metaphysical judgment — those concepts are not designed to work correctly at that level.

                So, I think we understand each other – this will be my last post in the thread.

              • dguller
                Posted August 2, 2012 at 9:33 am | Permalink

                Another Matt:

                My contention is that for essentialism to live up to what it wants to guarantees, there would need to be a metaphysical fact of the matter about the borderline cases, based on the essence of “cheek.” Then it would only be a question of whether we are empirically sophisticated enough to determine which of the two metaphysical categories a given skin cell fell under. I have said I think the assumption that there is a fact of the matter begs the question if it is assumed that the concept “cheek” cleaves out such a well-defined essential category that needs to be hunted for.

                As I mentioned, fuzzy boundaries presupposes clear cases on either side, and if there are clear cases, then it is possible for there to be natures and essences that define what things are. After all, the nature or essence of X is simply that which identifies what X is supposed to be. It is what all X’s share in common that ground their categorization into the group X. Since there are clearly cases in which we can identify particular entities belonging to general category, then the truth of natures and essences is justified, because is what it means to have a nature or essence. It is a secondary issue whether we can always identify those natures that occur within the fuzzy boundary of intermediate cases. So, I don’t think that it begs the question, but is actually essential to even asking any question at all.

                There are words that, unlike “cheek,” do point to such a cleavage in the world (e.g. “hydrogen” and “not-hydrogen”). And there are words that do describe clear situations for medium-sized objects and normal-sized temporal chunks of experience (e.g. “hanging from” a clothesline or “draped over” a chair or “on top of” a table).

                Great, then you agree that there are natures and essences in the cases where there is such a clear-cut demarcation or boundary. It is the fuzzy, intermediate cases that you think compromise essentialism. Fine.

                The table example is good because how we use the phrase “on top of a table” is only guaranteed to work for medium-sized objects. If we had to look microscopically at the table, there would be no fact of the matter about some molecules — those for which “on top of” doesn’t work appropriately, like specs of dust perched on a vertical crag at the very edge of the table, and those for which it’s impossible to determine whether they should be counted as part of the table. There isn’t a clear enough “essence of table” or “essence of the ‘on top of’ relation” for there to be a metaphysical judgment — those concepts are not designed to work correctly at that level.

                Again, that might be a problem for those particular concepts, which have ambiguous or fuzzy intermediate cases that do not fit into those concepts. Perhaps a new intermediate category would be helpful? For example, the paradoxes of Parmenides only work if you only accept two categories: being and non-being. Aristotle’s solution to those paradoxes was to postulate a third category: actual being, potential being and non-being, in which potential being is an intermediate case of actual being and non-being. So, you had paradoxes with one categorical framework, which were eliminated by adding an intermediate category. I don’t see why this couldn’t continue to be applicable in the fuzzy cases that you mentioned. There is the reality, and then there is how we talk about that reality. We might make mistakes in how we talk about reality, but that doesn’t undermine reality itself.

                So, I think we understand each other – this will be my last post in the thread.

                Take care, and thanks for the dialogue.

            • truthspeaker
              Posted August 1, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

              Again, you’re talking about the categories we assign things to in our brains, not the reality those categories are abstractions of.

              • dguller
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 9:26 am | Permalink

                truthspeaker:

                Of course classification is all in our minds, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t help us understand reality.

                How could it help us understand reality if it is all in our minds? There must be something in reality that corresponds to what is in our minds for us to have knowledge about reality. If there is no such correspondence, then how can you say you have knowledge? The very definition involves beliefs that truly represent what exists in the world. If you cut the world out of the equation, then you just have free-floating beliefs and ideas, which is actually what psychosis involves.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 10:09 am | Permalink

                Classifications are useful concepts for describing reality. The have some correspondence to reality but the classifications themselves exist only in our minds.

                For example, you can’t point to a point on a continuum where people in France stopped speaking Latin and started speaking French, and yet the categories “Latin” and “French” are useful to us.

              • Another Matt
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 9:43 am | Permalink

                Maybe an example will help.

                “Nose” and “cheek” are useful abstract concepts, and we can talk about the evolutionary histories of each, the function of each as endorsed by natural selection, and a host of other things.

                What we can’t do is say that by making the distinction between nose and cheek, that there is thereby a fact of the matter regarding the following hypothesis:

                “Given a facial skin cell, it is either 1) on the nose, 2) on a cheek, 3) neither of those two.”

                A pernicious and greedy essentialism would go even further, claiming not only that by defining a difference between “nose” and “cheek” there must in fact be a sharp difference in the world between the categories “nose” and “cheek,” but further that whatever a nose is made of has “nose essence” all the way down.

              • dguller
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 11:06 am | Permalink

                Truthspeaker:

                Classifications are useful concepts for describing reality. The have some correspondence to reality but the classifications themselves exist only in our minds.

                What is this “some correspondence to reality”? Could this include what is essential to the class in question, i.e. what is shared in common by all members of the class? And if not, then why not? You have already agreed that some properties in a classification must exist both in our minds and in the reality the classification is trying to describe. Why can’t essences be those properties?

                For example, you can’t point to a point on a continuum where people in France stopped speaking Latin and started speaking French, and yet the categories “Latin” and “French” are useful to us.

                As I mentioned elsewhere, this does not mean that there are not essential conditions for “speaking Latin” and “speaking French” that have a fine grained border between them that we simply cannot perceive or conceive due to our limited perceptual and cognitive abilities. Furthermore, it depends upon what you mean by “stopped speaking Latin”. Do you mean when the last Frenchman who spoke Latin died? Do you mean when the majority of the population spoke French and not Latin? In those cases, it could simply be because we lack the empirical data to do identify that transition point. Fuzzy borders and grey areas between categories do not necessarily falsify the categories themselves, because they may be due to epistemological limitations on our part. Also, difficulties in applying a theory do not falsify the theory. The three-body problem did not falsify Newtonian mechanics even though it was impossible to calculate.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 11:31 am | Permalink

                I suggest you do some reading on the cognitive science concept of “prototypes”.

                In the case of when people in France stopped speaking Latin and started speaking French, it’s not a matter of empirical knowledge. It’s the fact that Latin gradually became French, and there is no single point in history where you can say it stopped being Latin and started being French, anymore than you can look at a rainbow and find the exact spot where orange ends and yellow begins.

                In the case of, say, balls, is an American football a ball? It’s not spherical, but we still know it’s a ball. It’s used in a sport and it’s filled with air. What about a baseball? It is spherical, it is used in a sport, but it’s not filled with air. So we know being filled with air isn’t essential to being a ball, and we know being spherical isn’t essential to being a ball. But a shuttlecock isn’t a ball, so we know being used in a sporting event alone isn’t sufficient for an object to be classified as a ball.

                Our brains can make categories of things even if there is no one property that all those things have in common.

              • dguller
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 11:18 am | Permalink

                Another Matt:

                A pernicious and greedy essentialism would go even further, claiming not only that by defining a difference between “nose” and “cheek” there must in fact be a sharp difference in the world between the categories “nose” and “cheek,” but further that whatever a nose is made of has “nose essence” all the way down.

                Again, fuzzy boundaries could have ontological or epistemological issues. They could have ontological issues, because there is simply no truth regarding propositions that describe clear boundaries in the fuzzy area, but that relies upon the truth that our understanding is sufficiently fine grained to perceive and conceive of all boundaries. That is not necessarily true, and thus your ontological conclusion does not necessarily follow. In other words, just because we cannot identify a boundary in the fuzzy area does not mean that there is no such boundary.

                I agree that Sorites-like paradoxes are problems for essentialism, which presupposes essences that have necessary and sufficient conditions that serve as boundaries, differentiating substances from one another. I just don’t think it’s the knockdown argument that you think it is. There are responses to it, which I think are quite reasonable, and I’ve outlined my preferred response. After all, just because I cannot see the boundary between X and Y, the fact that there is a clear difference between X and Y means that there must be a boundary somewhere, even if I cannot see it.

                Maybe this is enough to reject essentialism on epistemological grounds, though. If there are essences, but we simply cannot identify them due to the inevitable fuzzy boundaries that occur, then what is the use of such a theory? I don’t think that this works either, because there are lots of theories that set limitations upon us that preclude total knowledge, and yet we still use them.

              • Another Matt
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

                dguller:

                Maybe this is enough to reject essentialism on epistemological grounds, though. If there are essences, but we simply cannot identify them due to the inevitable fuzzy boundaries that occur, then what is the use of such a theory? I don’t think that this works either, because there are lots of theories that set limitations upon us that preclude total knowledge, and yet we still use them.

                Maybe I wasn’t clear enough, but now you’re arguing the same point I was. I’m making a very simple, humdrum claim, which is that a given linguistic distinction does not guarantee a crisp ontological boundary that will correspond to that linguistic one, and there will be some that are recalcitrant even in the face of further definition.

                I could be wrong but it seems to me that the A-T version of essentialism seems to require that an ontological boundary is guaranteed to exist whenever a linguistic distinction is made. If you’re saying “it could be the case that the ontological boundary exists but we’ll never find it,” that’s very different from saying “the ontological boundary must exist, even if we never find it.”

                And some, I’m pretty sure there is no fact of the matter – you can make a useful geographic distinction between Israel and Palestine, say, even if you are certain that the border between them is inherently fuzzy.

              • dguller
                Posted August 2, 2012 at 5:38 am | Permalink

                truthspeaker:

                Our brains can make categories of things even if there is no one property that all those things have in common.

                And yet it does not follow that if our brain makes a category of things, then those things never have anything in common. Just because our brain makes mistakes of classification by including a species in the wrong genus, so to speak, it does not follow that every classification scheme fails to represent true divisions in reality, which is your thesis. As I mentioned above, your argument is like claiming that because our senses are sometimes wrong, they can never be right, which is absurd. And just pointing to all the times they are wrong does not necessarily mean that they are never right.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted August 2, 2012 at 6:17 am | Permalink

                That’s not what I said.

                I said our brain can make categories out of objects even if there is no one thing that all those objects have in common. I didn’t say they have nothing in common.

                A can have something in common with B, and B can have something in common with C that it doesn’t have in common with A, and C can have something in common with A that it doesn’t have with B, and our brains might put A, B, and C all in the same category.

              • dguller
                Posted August 2, 2012 at 7:30 am | Permalink

                Truthspeaker:

                A can have something in common with B, and B can have something in common with C that it doesn’t have in common with A, and C can have something in common with A that it doesn’t have with B, and our brains might put A, B, and C all in the same category.

                But then what exactly is the argument against essentialism here?

                It seems that your point is that we often group particulars under a common category when they do not all belong under that category, and rather should be broken up into different categories.

                Taking your example:

                (1) A has X
                (2) B has X and Y
                (3) C has Y
                (4) A and B both share X
                (5) B and C both share Y
                (6) A and C do not share X and Y

                In that situation, A and B can be in the category X, because they both share X, and B and C can be in the category Y, because they both share Y, but A and C cannot be in the same category, because they share neither X nor Y. Now, if humans make the mistake of taking the similarity between A and B, between B and C, to infer that A and C should be in the same category, then they have simply made a mistake in their categorization.

                However, this does not imply that there is no such thing as a true category, and if there is a true category, then there must be something common to all particulars in that category, and an essentialist would just call that “something”, a nature or essence. And that is just what essentialism claims.

                So, again, I don’t see how this undermines essentialism, other than to say that it is often difficult to classify intermediate cases, and that humans often make mistakes in classification on the basis of this difficulty. But arguing that this undermines essentialism is like saying that because people are often wrong, then they are never right, which is ridiculous.

                To be honest, I don’t exactly understand what your position is with regards to essentialism. Is it wrong, because all classification is necessary false, i.e. the ontological claim that there is no such thing as a common nature or essence shared by different beings? Is it wrong, because some classification is false, i.e. there are common natures or essences, but that humans make mistakes about them, and often cannot classify intermediate cases?

                Help me out here.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted August 2, 2012 at 7:38 am | Permalink

                That’s not my point at all.

                My point is that categories are human constructs. They allow us to group things together that are similar in some ways, but they do not reflect some deeper truth about the things we are grouping together.

              • dguller
                Posted August 2, 2012 at 9:26 am | Permalink

                Truthspeaker:

                My point is that categories are human constructs. They allow us to group things together that are similar in some ways, but they do not reflect some deeper truth about the things we are grouping together.

                First, that is ambiguous. Yes, categories are “human constructs” in the sense that they are postulated by human beings, but it does not follow that they do not accurate represent reality. All scientific theories are “human constructs”, and yet I doubt that you would say that “they do not reflect some deeper truth about the things” that are described in the theory. So, the fact that something is produced by human beings does not mean that it has nothing to do with reality.

                Second, if there is nothing real that connects the things together into a group, then it is just a projection from our imagination that is ungrounded in reality. Why even put those things in such a group unless there is something that they share in common? Categorization then becomes completely arbitrary, and thus useless, unless it actually represents something in reality.

                Third, if you are espousing conventionalism, then you must know that it is ultimately incoherent. Is it absolutely true that all categories are conventional, or is that also just a human convention? You have a general statement that all X’s are Y, which is just another way of categorizing them. You then plug in “X = categories” and “Y = conventional”, and you get “all categories are conventional”. Since this is of the form all X’s are Y, then it is itself a grouping or category. To say that “all categories are conventional” is itself conventional just undermines the thesis altogether, because it implies that it is just arbitrary and disconnected from reality. So, why believe it?

              • truthspeaker
                Posted August 2, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

                “Why even put those things in such a group unless there is something that they share in common? ”

                Because it’s useful to us to do so.

                “Categorization then becomes completely arbitrary, and thus useless, unless it actually represents something in reality.”

                How so?

                Categorizing the visual spectrum into colors, as humans do, is arbitrary, and yet very useful to us. We have words for “red”, “green”, and “yellow”, even though those divisions are arbitrary, but those words allow us to build traffic lights and teach each other what they mean.

                Arbitrary does not mean useless.

              • dguller
                Posted August 2, 2012 at 10:06 am | Permalink

                Truthspeaker:

                They allow us to group things together that are similar in some ways, but they do not reflect some deeper truth about the things we are grouping together.

                And one more thing.

                To say that X and Y are “similar in some ways” just means that they have some things that are the same, and other things that are different. Otherwise, they would either be totally the same (i.e. X = Y), or totally different, and thus have nothing to do with one another. When you focus upon what X and Y have in common, you are focusing upon their nature or essence, especially if what they have in common is part of what defines what they actually are.

                So, either they really have something in common to ground the grouping, or they do not really have something in common to ground the grouping. If the former, then essentialism. If the latter, then all groupings are just projections of the human imagination via arbitrary conventions, and thus have no justification to be called “true” at all, which makes them useless for human knowledge.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted August 2, 2012 at 11:42 am | Permalink

                “When you focus upon what X and Y have in common, you are focusing upon their nature or essence, especially if what they have in common is part of what defines what they actually are”

                But everything about them defines what they actually are, not just what they have in common with other things.

                “If the latter, then all groupings are just projections of the human imagination via arbitrary conventions, and thus have no justification to be called “true” at all, which makes them useless for human knowledge.”

                Your conclusion doesn’t follow from your premise. Just because groupings invented by humans are projections of the human imagination does not mean they are useless for human knowledge. Are names for colors useless for human knowledge? They are completely arbitrary, and vary from society to society – our culture sees 7 colors in the spectrum, others see more or fewer. Dividing the spectrum into different colors is still useful.

                For that matter, the sounds we decide are “words” are completely arbitrary, and I’m sure you wouldn’t say that language is useless for human knowledge.

                The rules for chess are enitirely arbitrary as well.

              • dguller
                Posted August 2, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

                truthspeaker:

                Because it’s useful to us to do so.

                What does “useful” mean? Is it useful in terms of discovering the truth about the world? Or, is it useful in terms of assisting us in our practical activities to achieve our goals? And if so, then what goals? And how does it help us to achieve our goals? Or, is it useful in terms of being used commonly by human beings?

                Categorizing the visual spectrum into colors, as humans do, is arbitrary, and yet very useful to us. We have words for “red”, “green”, and “yellow”, even though those divisions are arbitrary, but those words allow us to build traffic lights and teach each other what they mean.

                I partially agree.

                The visual spectrum is characterized by wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation that impact our visual apparatus and are processed to generate our subjective experience of color. There are real wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, and these are not arbitrary in the sense of being mainly dependent upon human beings for their reality. They exist independently of human beings. However, you are correct that how we categorize and distinguish between different colors is partially dependent upon us, because it depends upon which colors stand out for us in our subjective experience. We divide them into primary and secondary colors, for example. There is nothing special about the primary colors, except that they stand out as vivid to us, and that other colors can be made by mixing them.

                And since our categorization of colors depends upon our subjective experience, then it follows that if our subjective experience is insufficiently fine grained to differentiate all possible wavelengths, then there will inevitably be fuzzy intermediate colors that do not fit into our categories. However, they do have particular wavelengths in reality, and that is not arbitrary, but only what we choose to call them, if we can call them anything.

                That is why I say that I only partially agree. It is not entirely arbitrary, but only partly arbitrary.

                Arbitrary does not mean useless.

                No, it doesn’t. It just means that there is absolutely no reason to believe what we do about X, i.e. there is nothing in X that makes us call it “X”. And that is just plainly untrue for a number of things in the world. It is true for things like money, which entirely depend upon human beings for their significance and properties, but it is untrue for how we name and discuss natural phenomena, including color. Just because there are different ways to categorize something does not mean that all is permitted and there are no limitations or restrictions, which is what “arbitrary” means. Oh, and “useful” is not coextensive with “true”, although there is a broad area of overlap.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted August 2, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

                ” Is it useful in terms of discovering the truth about the world? Or, is it useful in terms of assisting us in our practical activities to achieve our goals? ”

                The latter.

                “There are real wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, and these are not arbitrary in the sense of being mainly dependent upon human beings for their reality. They exist independently of human beings. However, you are correct that how we categorize and distinguish between different colors is partially dependent upon us, because it depends upon which colors stand out for us in our subjective experience. We divide them into primary and secondary colors, for example. There is nothing special about the primary colors, except that they stand out as vivid to us, and that other colors can be made by mixing them. ”

                English-speakers divide colors that way, including the primary colors. Other cultures divide them differently. And that’s my point. There is nothing essential about green that purple doesn’t have, and vice versa.

                And I never said “useful” equated to “true”. My point is quite the opposite – that the categories and classifications we come up with are useful to us, but they do not necessarily reflect anything in nature that could be regarded as essential.

                “But chess isn’t supposed to help us have knowledge about the world.”

                Actually it is, and does.

              • dguller
                Posted August 2, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

                truthspeaker:

                But everything about them defines what they actually are, not just what they have in common with other things.

                That is not true. There is a difference between what is necessary and sufficient for X to be X, and what is simply possible for X to be. For example, it is necessary that a human being to be an animal, but it is only possible for a human being to be clothed. Now, this does not mean that it is easy to identify the nature of X, because you need a criterion to differentiate what must be present in all X’s to be X, and what would have been present in X if not for some inhibiting factor in the world. That is challenging, to say the least.

                Your conclusion doesn’t follow from your premise. Just because groupings invented by humans are projections of the human imagination does not mean they are useless for human knowledge. Are names for colors useless for human knowledge? They are completely arbitrary, and vary from society to society – our culture sees 7 colors in the spectrum, others see more or fewer. Dividing the spectrum into different colors is still useful.

                First, the names of colors are supposed to track particular subjective color experiences, and specific wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation. They are not just conjured up from our imaginations, unrooted from the world.

                Second, just because there are different possible classification systems does not mean that there are no restrictions from reality upon what classification systems are possible. For example, take the following objects: A, B, and C. How many objects are there? 3 or 7? Either, depending upon what you count as an “object”. If only A, B and C count as “objects”, then the answer is 3. If you can also include combinations of A, B and C, then the answer is 7 (A, B, C, AB, AC, BC, ABC). Does it follow that there are no restrictions involved in how you classify an “object”? Of course not. It has to involve A, B and C in some way, and thus cannot be completely arbitrary, which his what makes knowledge about A, B and C possible. If our classification system had nothing to do with A, B and C, then how could we have knowledge of them? There has to be some connection, some limitation, some restriction, that grounds the classification for it to be valid. Otherwise, it is just made up fantasy.

                Third, just because something is useful does not make it true. It is useful for politicians to lie to their citizens to further their plans, but that does not make their lies true.

                For that matter, the sounds we decide are “words” are completely arbitrary, and I’m sure you wouldn’t say that language is useless for human knowledge.

                But language is only useful, because it purports to track what happens in the world. I point to a dog, and call it a “dog”. Sure, I could have called it anything, but what I am referring to is a dog. I am directing my word to something in the world. In other words, the word, which is arbitrary, points to something, which is not arbitrary. And it is not useful, because it has arbitrary elements. It is useful despite the arbitrary elements.

                The rules for chess are enitirely arbitrary as well.

                That is true. But chess isn’t supposed to help us have knowledge about the world. So, I’m not too sure what this example has to do with my argument that unless our classification system has some connection to the world, then it is useless for knowledge, because it is totally arbitrary and unrooted. Chess is fun and challenging, but not true.

              • dguller
                Posted August 2, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

                truthspeaker:

                The latter.

                So, we group things in different classification systems, because this is useful in practical terms to attain our goals, and not because it helps us to understand the world any better. Okay. What if our goal is to understand the world? Is it still useful, or is it useless? It seems that you would say that it is useless. In that case, then if we do want to understand the world, it seems that all classification systems are useless for that goal. The problem is that all knowledge involves classification, and that means that all knowledge is impossible, because the means of attaining knowledge is, by definition, useless to that goal.

                There is nothing essential about green that purple doesn’t have, and vice versa.

                Sure, there is. Visible red light has a wavelength of about 650 nm. Visible purple light has a wavelength of about 400 nm. That does not seem arbitrary to me, but pretty well rooted in the reality of electromagnetic radiation and its impact upon our visual processing apparatus.

                My point is quite the opposite – that the categories and classifications we come up with are useful to us, but they do not necessarily reflect anything in nature that could be regarded as essential.

                But you miss the point that the reason why a classification scheme can possibly be useful is that it must, at some level, accurately reflect reality, especially when that scheme is supposed to be about the world. If I had a classification system in which trees could walk, and animals were rooted in the ground, then it would be useless to determine the behavior of trees and animals, because trees cannot walk, and animals are not rooted in the ground. Unless what we call “trees” in English, you want to call “animals” in this new schema, and what we call “animals” in English, you want to call “trees” in this new schema. But in that case, the reality is the same, and the properties of that reality are the same, and only the labels are arbitrary. But so what? Essentialism just says that there are real essences, irrespective of what you want to call them.

                Actually it is, and does.

                The purpose of chess is to teach us truths about the world? What have you learned about the world from chess? Is it a reliable method of understanding the world? What are the criterion and rules that govern extracting chess information and coming up with truths about the world?

        • Another Matt
          Posted August 1, 2012 at 6:51 am | Permalink

          Oh. The actual Dennett quote is (p. 201):

          “Nothing complicated enough to be really interesting could have an essence.”

          The context is about speciation events, and the beginning of life (there’s no “essential difference” between the “first member” of a species and its parents — it’s just a contingent accident of history).

          He goes on:

          “This anti-essentialist theme was recognized by Darwin as a truly revolutionary epistemological or metaphysical accompaniment to his science; we should not be surprised by how hard it is for people to swallow. Ever since Socrates taught Plato (and all the rest of us) how to play the game of asking for necessary and sufficient conditions, we have seen the task of “defining your terms” as a proper preamble to all serious investigation, and this has sent us off on interminable bouts of essence-mongering. We want to draw lines; we often need to draw lines — just so we can terminate or forestall sterile explorations in a timely fashion. Our perceptual systems are even genetically designed to force straddling candidates for perception into one classification or another (Jackendoff 1993), a Good Trick but not a forced move. Darwin shows us that evolution does not need what we need; the real world can get along just fine with the de facto divergences that emerge over time, leaving lots of emptiness between clusters of reality.”

          Hopefully that gives you enough context.

          • Vaal
            Posted August 1, 2012 at 7:45 am | Permalink

            Matt,

            Yes I brought up this problem to Feser on Eric’s blog (I am RH) – how the process of evolution makes a hash of his form of essentialism. As Feser admitted, talk of final cause and purpose do have an appeal to norms in populations – in other words what is common or “normal” among a population becomes “normative.” But aside from the fuzziness of essences even taken within existing populations, the very process of evolution is based on the SUCCESS of non-normative characteristics, once a new selection pressure occurs. In other words, those few individuals that have a abnormal mutation can be the ones who “flourish” and allow the population to continue (and evolve). So do you recognize this beneficial but abnormal mutation as “good” or not? If you do, then you aren’t sticking to the criteria of norms. If you don’t, then you give up the connection between “good” and “flourishing.” And when, if ever, does the new trait that wasn’t the norm BECOME magically “good” or part of the “final cause?”

            You get either evasions or subjective criteria responses imported into value statements like “flourishing” and “best for the organism.”

            Feser’s evasion to this problem was an amazing display of evasion and question-begging. He didn’t answer the question but said instead he rejects that analysis because in talking about evolution theory I’d be using science, and he holds that science itself rests on underlying Aristotelian Metaphysics…

            ….the VERY Metaphysics he was supposed to be arguing for!

            So long as he thinks empirical observations (e.g. characteristics observed in populations) can be used to support his metaphysical argument, he’ll appeal to them.
            But any empirical observation that causes trouble…well, reject those! Because, you see, my metaphysics must be correct!

            Yeesh.

            Vaal

            • dguller
              Posted August 1, 2012 at 8:34 am | Permalink

              Vaal:

              It’s actually even worse than you describe.

              Say you have a particular population of individuals at time t1 that are supposed to share a common essence E. Within that population, there is variation amongst the individuals, each of which has E. According to evolution, some of those individuals could pass on traits that increase their fitness at a later time t2. Say, that at time t2, those descendents actually have become a new species with a new essence F.

              At some time between t1 and t2, the individuals in the variation group with essence E evolved into a new species with essence F, but if you look at each individual moment of procreation, each individual seems to have essence E. There is no identifiable moment where E becomes F, and yet at t2, there is F.

              This is a huge problem for essentialists, as far as I can tell. At any moment, while looking at a population, you do not know if what you are seeing is an individual with E or an individual with F, because they appear the same to us, when looking at individual moments of procreation (i.e. parent to offspring at a particular time). And that significantly compromises our ability to identify and talk about essences at a given time.

              Admittedly, there is an extended discussion of precisely this issue in Oderberg’s Real Essentialism, which I’m eventually going to get to, and maybe there is a good response to it, but it just seems that if we cannot identify the transition point between individuals that are E and individuals that are F, then either there is no such thing as a common nature (i.e. an ontological problem), which leads to absurd consequences, or there is a common nature, but it is simply too fine grained to be perceived or conceived by human beings (i.e. an epistemological problem).

              • Vaal
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 9:27 am | Permalink

                Hi dguller,

                I understand from other discussions that you are not necessarily wedded to T-Aristotelianism but rather at least wish to see it criticized based on what it says, not on strawmen, which is why you get into presenting the position of the T-Aristotelians. (If I have that right).

                Anyway,

                The problem you and I are noting re evolution runs right back to the very attempt of the T-Aristotelian to establish his metaphysics – and I mentioned that at the end of my previous post.

                In building the case for his metaphysics the T-Aristotelian must quite quickly leave the realm of a priori when asked to justify his claims. When we ask “why should I believe that?” the T-A will start to point to empirical observations about the world that purportedly suggest the basis for his metaphysics is sound. But then when you point to empirical observations that do not support the metaphysics, the A-T dismisses them as not underlining A-T metaphysics because, after all, “A-T metaphysics is presumed in such observations.”

                (See Feser-type replies to the problem of what we observe about evolution).

                Uh…no. They beg the question. They aren’t actually establishing what they have been asked to establish.

                Vaal

              • dguller
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 10:29 am | Permalink

                Vaal:

                I understand from other discussions that you are not necessarily wedded to T-Aristotelianism but rather at least wish to see it criticized based on what it says, not on strawmen, which is why you get into presenting the position of the T-Aristotelians. (If I have that right).

                You are correct that I agree with broad aspects of A-T, but don’t buy into the totality of the system, and that I think that a position should be presented in its strongest form before refutation. If you read Feser’s non-polemical works (e.g. Aquinas, Philosophy of Mind), you see him making fair arguments for opposing viewpoints. I actually appreciate that.

                In building the case for his metaphysics the T-Aristotelian must quite quickly leave the realm of a priori when asked to justify his claims. When we ask “why should I believe that?” the T-A will start to point to empirical observations about the world that purportedly suggest the basis for his metaphysics is sound. But then when you point to empirical observations that do not support the metaphysics, the A-T dismisses them as not underlining A-T metaphysics because, after all, “A-T metaphysics is presumed in such observations.”

                I’ve noticed the same thing. My thinking is that if a system has problems, then that is not necessary reason to jettison it entirely. Materialism and physicalism have numerous problems, some seemingly insurmountable, and yet they continue to be frameworks from which discussions and research can proceed. So, it’s not enough to just point to problems, because all systems have problems and phenomena that they struggle to account for.

                With regards to Feser’s inconsistent use of empirical observations occasionally to justify his metaphysics, and occasionally to ignore as irrelevant to metaphysics, is concerning, because he has to demonstrate a criterion that allows him differentiate when empirical observations are relevant and when they are irrelevant. Perhaps the best that he can do is to point out that his system accounts for the majority of phenomena in a coherent fashion, and that exceptions can also be interpreted as consistent with his system, which is actually similar to what most scientific theories do, except that his is more abstract and general. In other words, if A, B, C and D all fit in the system S, and E, under one interpretation I1 does not fit S, but under another interpretation I2 does fit S, then E can be understood either way. If S is otherwise sound, then I1 may be preferred, and I2 can be minimized unless enough other phenomena that require I2 for coherence accumulate, and then S may have to be reconsidered.

                Perhaps the best that he can do is that if the majority of empirical phenomena are accounted for by his metaphysical system, and exceptional phenomena

              • Vaal
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 11:08 am | Permalink

                I totally agree that one ought not throw out a system that has not explained everything. If we had such a demand, probably none of our theories scientific or otherwise would be acceptable.

                I just find Feser-type arguments fall down all over the place. They don’t even strike me as promising.

                And that is the point I’ve tried to make over on Feser’s blog various times. Over there you continually get greeted by a haughty “Get out of here until you’ve read all these books on T-A metaphysics. Until then you can be dismissed as too ignorant to be here.”

                Which is to misunderstand the situation. I do not go to the T-Aristotelian asking to know the entire system, or claiming to have shown the entire system fails. No, what is happening is I come there saying “Look, I’m someone interested in the truth and sound philosophy: can you give me some good reason to think your system delivers? You don’t need to explain the whole thing, merely make a case that it is PROMISING and that therefore my effort to learn more will be rewarded with a sound metaphysical/philosophical system.”

                As I’ve said, I needn’t describe the entirety of the Theory Of Evolution to be able to make some case for it’s being a promising theory to explore. I can point out it’s real contributions in the world of science, or take a particular example of an observation that the theory explains particularly well, etc. If I CAN’T at least provide enough argument to suggest the promise or soundness of the theory, then people are quite justified in at least saying “Sorry, you haven’t given me reason to think it’s worth my time.”

                I don’t need to have read all of Aquinas or all or even any of Feser’s books to reject his metaphysics. I only need note that what defenses he HAS made available on his blog and comments contain enough unjustified reasoning to be rejected, and so he has given no reason to think the theory is something worth taking seriously.

                And for all Feser’s complaining about Jerry Coyne’s supposed naivete – that Jerry hasn’t read up on all the Aristotelian/Thomistic literature – Jerry has at least been right in taking apart some of Feser’s poor justifications when Feser talks of his metaphysics. Jerry is right when he points out he doesn’t need to have read all the books to see that the reasoning Feser HAS presented fails to engender any confidence that a longer exposition of the theory will be any better.

                Vaal

              • dguller
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 11:28 am | Permalink

                Vaal:

                I don’t need to have read all of Aquinas or all or even any of Feser’s books to reject his metaphysics. I only need note that what defenses he HAS made available on his blog and comments contain enough unjustified reasoning to be rejected, and so he has given no reason to think the theory is something worth taking seriously.

                First, have you read any of his books? I can say that both his Last Superstition and Aquinas are good reads and present his case more thoroughly than he does on his blog. They don’t take much time to read and might be worth your while, because they do provide some justification for the framework. He spends about 50 pages justifying and explaining the metaphysics behind the natural theology in Aquinas. It is a multifaceted and interlocking system that requires some length to expound. Just something to consider.

                Second, the general idea, as far as I can tell, is trying to understand the change that we observe around us. We observe things interacting with other things, and the question is how to understand this change. That’s the beginning, which is why Aquinas says that our knowledge begins in the empirical world, but ultimately points beyond it because understanding the empirical world presupposes metaphysical truths to have any coherence whatsoever. There is a positive case and a negative case that he makes. The positive case is using empirical examples to justify metaphysical principles, which is fine. The negative case is identifying the absurd consequences of rejecting those principles. Again, this takes time to expound.

                Third, any specific questions or issues that need justification for by Feser? You’ve mentioned a criterion by which to know when empirical observations are relevant to metaphysics and when they are irrelevant to metaphysics, which is fair. You’ve also mentioned a criterion to determine what actual behavior by existing beings should count as final ends, which would make them part of those beings’ essence or nature, and which do not, which would make them accidental properties. Anything else?

              • Vaal
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

                dguller,

                First, I admire your delving into the books and issues. That said…

                In my more thoroughgoing philosophy phase (I still like it, though I don’t still go rifling through the classics as I did before) I did read up on Aquinas, Aristotelianism, Platonism etc.
                No I haven’t read Feser’s books. Remember, here I’m not asking “How can I find out more about what Feser believes” or more about T-Aristotelianism per se. Rather I do not find Feser’s shorter treatments on his blog and comments give me any confidence that a longer slog
                through his book will be any more convincing. If I wanted to know more about what he believes, sure, then it would make sense I ought to seek out books such as Feser has written. But if instead I’m looking for any motivation to think Feser’s metaphysics and religion are on the right track, then “no.” Shorter fallacy-filled arguments do not suggest longer sound arguments.

                As to what issues I’d have with Dr. Feser’s account of the world: The first would be asking for a justification for actually believing the claims of The Bible (he does after all thnk the Bible is somehow descriptive or informative about God). Even IF you start with some ontologically established philosopher’s God, it seems absurd and a great case of special pleading to drop the bar low enough to accept the Bible as representing a Divine Being. It’s so blatant a bad move that it immediately throws Feser’s entire project into doubt.

                But of course Feser will say he starts with a metaphysical account of God, and then moves to revelation. Again, I don’t think he can make this move. But even going to the metaphysics, as you have identified I would start by questioning his Value Theory. This is so deeply tied to the types of moves he (and anyone) is making in terms of ontology and epistemology that it serves to put the fundamentals on display, and high-light any questionable leaps.

                So asking how T-Aristotelianism answers the fact/value distinction is illuminating, and the moves I see being made do not hold up under the light. As it happens I think there ARE theories concerning objective value that I find compelling (that is, value/normative statements would be objective truth claims), but T-Aristotelianism seems to fail pretty obviously as an approach. (In fact, in my dialogue with Feser on the subject, we discussed various examples from nature, asking how values arise and interact with those examples. I pointed out how an alternative value theory seems to make more sense of our categories, without suffering the problems of Feser’s theory. )

                Cheers,

                Vaal

              • dguller
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

                Vaal:

                The first would be asking for a justification for actually believing the claims of The Bible (he does after all thnk the Bible is somehow descriptive or informative about God). Even IF you start with some ontologically established philosopher’s God, it seems absurd and a great case of special pleading to drop the bar low enough to accept the Bible as representing a Divine Being. It’s so blatant a bad move that it immediately throws Feser’s entire project into doubt.

                True, but we aren’t talking about religion or Christianity, only Aristotelian metaphysics. Sure, the latter has been used to justify the former, but they are not necessarily connected. And just so you know, Feser’s Aquinas doesn’t even go into Christian theology at all. So, that’s a whole separate issue. Regardless, you are correct that even Aquinas said that some religious truths could not be derived from reason, and required revelation, and if you reject revelation as spurious, as you and I both do, then a Christian project is compromised.

                So asking how T-Aristotelianism answers the fact/value distinction is illuminating, and the moves I see being made do not hold up under the light.

                I think the best case that can be made is that A-T provides a framework within which to even ask those questions, but it is very difficult to find the right answers. This is mainly due to the difficulty in identifying final causes of different things. Personally, I think it is a matter of perspective, i.e. if one looks locally, then certain final causes make sense, but if one looks globally, then other final causes make sense. I would argue that they are all objectively true, but there is no final cause.

      • Posted August 1, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

        There’s a useful notion of essence still around. For example, the essence of hydrogen is to be an atom with a single proton in its nucleus. However, it (as one can see from the example) has no normative consequences of the kind the “natural law” people want.

    • microraptor
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

      The basic idea is that something is good to the degree to which it actualizes its nature.

      It’s the nature of nuclear weapons to explode. Are we inhibiting the bombs by failing to allow them to explode?

      • Posted August 1, 2012 at 12:20 am | Permalink

        Yes. See Dark Star.

        /@

      • dguller
        Posted August 1, 2012 at 3:02 am | Permalink

        Microrapter:

        It’s the nature of nuclear weapons to explode. Are we inhibiting the bombs by failing to allow them to explode?

        Yes, we are.

    • RF
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

      “The basic idea is that something is good to the degree to which it actualizes its nature.”
      And at that, we can stop, because the “basic idea” is a load of bullshit. But just for completeness sake:

      “For example, a triangle with straight lines is better than a triangle with crooked lines, because it actualizes its triangle nature to a greater degree.”
      There’s no such thing as “a triangle with crooked lines”. If you have a triangle-like shape with crooked lines, then it is perfectly actualizing its nature of being a triangle-like shape with crooked lines. Everything perfectly actualizes its nature.

      “In this system, the more something actualizes its nature, the more actual reality it is, and the more good it is considered to be. So, there is a necessary connection between the degree of reality in X and the degree of goodness in X.”
      Not only are you not using the word “good” according to what it actually means, you’re also failing to recognize that “so” implies a logical connection between two statements, and not merely that one is placed after the other.

      “If you accept this framework, then the idea that evil is privation of being makes more sense”
      Any makes sense given the proper delusion.

      “And yet you can still suffer by falling into a hole, because the absence has a real impact upon the world”
      If we’re going to play semantic games, no one suffers from falling in a hole. It’s hitting the bottom that causes injury.

      “There are problems with it”
      It is nothing but problem. Problems are not something that accompany it; problems are the very fabric out of which it is constructed.

      “So, you can never criticize a system based upon its own definitions leading to contradictions?”
      When the “system” is simply a sequence of nonsense, trying to engage it on its own terms is giving it too much respect. “Good” is an English word. It is defined through the consensus of English speakers. Theologians can’t simply reassign meaning to it according to their whim. And if they do redefine the word, then everything that follows does not constitute a discussion of the original concept, but of the new concept. Furthermore, the concept of “actualizing their nature” is meaningless blather.

      • dguller
        Posted August 1, 2012 at 3:21 am | Permalink

        RF:

        There’s no such thing as “a triangle with crooked lines”. If you have a triangle-like shape with crooked lines, then it is perfectly actualizing its nature of being a triangle-like shape with crooked lines. Everything perfectly actualizes its nature.

        First, whenever you draw a triangle, it will have crooked lines, because you can never draw perfectly straight lines, but only approximately straight lines, which are essentially crooked.

        Second, if you want to say that what you draw is the perfect exemplification of “a triangle-like shape with crooked lines”, then you can certainly do so. But we are talking about triangles, which have a specific definition and specific properties.

        Third, I take your point that the nature of X depends upon what you take X to be, which depends upon our perspective. So, one person will see a drawn triangle and say that it is an imperfect exemplar of an ideal triangle, and another will say that it is a perfect exemplar of a “triangle-like shape with crooked lines”. I admit that is certainly possible, but is it true? Is that really how humans process geometrical information? Also, where does such nominalism lead? To the obliteration of all knowledge, because all you can have are particular entities with no common properties, and thus what you learn about X should have no bearing about Y at all.

        Not only are you not using the word “good” according to what it actually means, you’re also failing to recognize that “so” implies a logical connection between two statements, and not merely that one is placed after the other.

        We use “good” in a variety of contexts. What Aristotle tried to do, and Aquinas after him, was to try to identify the essence, so to speak, of goodness, which is common to all uses of “good”. I think his definition is a pretty good one, given that objective. If you do not endorse that objective, then you can have as many definitions of “good” as you want, one for each use of “good”.

        Any makes sense given the proper delusion.

        Well, I would amend that to “anything makes sense, given an understanding of the framework”, and that can include psychotic frameworks. A person’s bizarre behavior can be understood by virtue of their psychotic and delusional beliefs. That doesn’t make their beliefs true, though.

        If we’re going to play semantic games, no one suffers from falling in a hole. It’s hitting the bottom that causes injury.

        Exactly right, but the “hitting the bottom” to cause injury in that case, couldn’t be possible without the hole. The absence of something has an impact in the world by reorganizing what actually exists.

        When the “system” is simply a sequence of nonsense, trying to engage it on its own terms is giving it too much respect.

        That is your right, of course. I suppose that a layman who hears talk of quarks and flavors can dismiss the Standard Model just as easily.

        “Good” is an English word. It is defined through the consensus of English speakers. Theologians can’t simply reassign meaning to it according to their whim. And if they do redefine the word, then everything that follows does not constitute a discussion of the original concept, but of the new concept. Furthermore, the concept of “actualizing their nature” is meaningless blather.

        First, Aristotle did not speak English, and it is his definition of “goodness” that we are talking about.

        Second, this isn’t about theology, although it has theological implications.

        Third, finding a good definition – there’s that word again! – by revision is not necessarily a fraudulent practice. It certainly could be, if the revised definition is ad hoc, and adds nothing to our understanding.

        Fourth, actualizing one’s nature is quite straightforward. Say that the essence of X is to do A, B, and C. X does A, but does not do B and C. X has actualized its nature insofar as it has done A, but still has the potential to do B and C, because they have not been done, i.e. actualized in reality. If X does A and B, but not C, then X has actualized its nature more than if X only does A, but not B and C. Ultimately, it means that the more that X ought to do, the more that X has done, and doing something is doing something in reality, i.e. actualization.

        • truthspeaker
          Posted August 1, 2012 at 4:44 am | Permalink

          It’s not only laymen that disregard Aristotle and Plato, it’s philosophers. No serious philosopher has taken essentialism or ideals and forms seriously for centuries.

          • dguller
            Posted August 1, 2012 at 6:04 am | Permalink

            truthspeaker:

            It’s not only laymen that disregard Aristotle and Plato, it’s philosophers. No serious philosopher has taken essentialism or ideals and forms seriously for centuries.

            First, an argument from popularity is a fallacy.

            Second, what counts as a “serious” philosopher, because there are a number of philosophers that I consider “serious” who take essentialism seriously (e.g. Hilary Putnam, Brian Ellis, Alexander Bird, Edward Feser, etc.)?

            • truthspeaker
              Posted August 1, 2012 at 6:06 am | Permalink

              It’s not about popularity, it’s about progress. A discredited idea was abandoned after people thought up better ideas.

              • dguller
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 6:20 am | Permalink

                Truthspeaker:

                It’s not about popularity, it’s about progress. A discredited idea was abandoned after people thought up better ideas.

                That’s not what you said. You said that because the majority of contemporary philosophers ignore essentialism as worthless implies that essentialism is, in fact, worthless. That is a fallacy, which you seem to recognize.

                With regards to your new view, progress does involve coming up with “better” ideas, and that involves giving reasons why previous ideas are incorrect. Let’s just stick to giving reasons and arguing against essentialism for a proper dialogue, and not bring in fallacies, such as popularity variety.

                I’m interested in your thoughts about my comments above.

                Thanks.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 6:40 am | Permalink

                Philosophers came up with reasons to reject essentialism a few hundred years ago. There’s no need to repeat them here. That would be re-inventing the wheel.

              • dguller
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 7:32 am | Permalink

                Truthspeaker

                Philosophers came up with reasons to reject essentialism a few hundred years ago. There’s no need to repeat them here. That would be re-inventing the wheel.

                What were those reasons? Were they answered by essentialists? The only arguments that I know of are related to the Sorites paradox, Wittgenstein’s family resemblance, and Darwinian gradualism. Are there others?

              • truthspeaker
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 7:41 am | Permalink

                This is not the place to give you a remedial philosophy education.

              • dguller
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 8:35 am | Permalink

                truthspeaker:

                Could you refer me to particular philosophers who have a compelling critique of essentialism?

                Thanks.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

                “Could you refer me to particular philosophers who have a compelling critique of essentialism? ”

                All the Enlightment ones, of course, plus Popper, Sartre, and Kierkegaard.

              • dguller
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 9:48 am | Permalink

                Truthspeaker:

                All the Enlightment ones, of course, plus Popper, Sartre, and Kierkegaard.

                Just offhand, Spinoza was essentialist to the core; Hume made comments about “human nature”, which was either supposed to be a universal truth about all human beings, or just his subjective opinions that have no bearing upon humanity; Sartre argued that our essence is existence, which seems to argue for some kind of essentialism; Kierkegaard had much to say what the essential properties of the human condition, including the inescapability of choice in uncertain circumstances that demand passionate engagement; Kant described what he conceived to be the essential properties of pure and practical reason; and Descartes spoke often about the essences of things, such as extension and thought.

                Care to try again?

              • truthspeaker
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 10:12 am | Permalink

                “Hume made comments about “human nature”, which was either supposed to be a universal truth about all human beings, or just his subjective opinions that have no bearing upon humanity”

                That’s not what “human nature” means. You seem to be suffering from a false dichotomy that a concept is either entirely real or entirely divorced from reality. That ignores the usefulness of abstractions and generalizations.

              • dguller
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

                Truthspeaker:

                That’s not what “human nature” means. You seem to be suffering from a false dichotomy that a concept is either entirely real or entirely divorced from reality. That ignores the usefulness of abstractions and generalizations.

                First, what does “human nature” mean, according to Hume, if there is no such thing as natures or essences? What is he even talking about when he says “human nature?

                Second, a concept is either (a) entirely real, (b) partially real, or (c) totally different. Only (a) and (b) can give us knowledge about the world, and they do so, because they share something in common with the world, either totally in (a) or partially in (b). In other words, there has to be a connection between our concepts and reality in order for us to have knowledge about the world. If an abstraction and generalization is neither (a) nor (b), then it is (c), and thus useless.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 11:24 am | Permalink

                He’s talking about generalizations you can make about how most humans behave. Isn’t that what everyone means by “human nature”?

                A concept can be completely imaginary and still be similar enough to something in the real world that it is useful. The orbital model of atoms, for example, is entirely imaginary, but it is a close enough approximation to reality to be useful in some circumstances. The concept of a circle is useful, even though you will not find a perfect circle in nature. The concept of “the German language” is useful, even though it actually describes a dialect continuum that includes Frisian, Swiss German, Pennsylvania Dutch, and everything in between.

              • dguller
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 11:41 am | Permalink

                Truthspeaker:

                He’s talking about generalizations you can make about how most humans behave. Isn’t that what everyone means by “human nature”?

                What do those generalizations have to do with human beings, if they have no nature? Do they actually apply to real human beings? And how does he identify human beings to observe their behavior at all? He must have some idea of what a “human being” is, and how is that different from an idea of human nature?

                The problem with Hume is that he assumes that reality consists of individual and separate empirical events. Each individual event has nothing to do with any other individual event. One event does not point towards another event, but rather stands alone and faces an abyss in the future, because there is literally nothing connecting a present event to a future possibility. In this radical system, there is nothing connecting each event to other events, including an underlying nature or essence, but that also includes underlying powers and forces. There is no such thing as a force of gravity, because you cannot observe a force as an empirical event. If reality is just individual events that are utterly separate and distinct, then there is no way to even identify a human being to observe to generalize.

                Furthermore, say I identify John as worth observing, and I catalogue John’s behavior. I learn some principles about John as a result (which is actually also impossible according to Hume, because what John does at time t1 has nothing to do with what John does at time t2). How can I generalize those principles to Fred? Well, I can’t, because there is nothing about Fred that those principles can latch onto, since Fred is nothing but a series of distinct events in space-time that have nothing to do with one another. So, how can you generalize from one person to the next without a shared human nature, and even worse, how can you even identify the principles that an individual person operates according to without some continuity in their identity, which is impossible in Hume’s system.

                A concept can be completely imaginary and still be similar enough to something in the real world that it is useful. The orbital model of atoms, for example, is entirely imaginary, but it is a close enough approximation to reality to be useful in some circumstances. The concept of a circle is useful, even though you will not find a perfect circle in nature. The concept of “the German language” is useful, even though it actually describes a dialect continuum that includes Frisian, Swiss German, Pennsylvania Dutch, and everything in between.

                The concept must still correspond to something in reality to be useful. The orbital model of atoms is not imaginary in the sense that it is just made up out of whole cloth. It is a model that purports to describe the behavior of atoms and their components. It is true insofar as it accurately represents the behavior of atoms, even though it is incorrect in some ways. Again, you need a connection between your ideas and reality to have knowledge, which is what makes them useful.

                Do you disagree with this? Can an idea be considered true if it is utterly divorced from reality?

              • truthspeaker
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

                That is a gross misstatement of what Hume is saying. Things do not have to share an “essence” to behave similarly to each other or to be connected to each other.

              • dguller
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

                Truthspeaker:

                That is a gross misstatement of what Hume is saying. Things do not have to share an “essence” to behave similarly to each other or to be connected to each other.

                That is Hume’s position.

                In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Hackett, 1993), he argued that if we cannot trace our ideas to any sense impressions, or empirical experiences, then those ideas do not represent anything real, and are simply phantasms of our minds. That is his fundamental premise of empiricism. Based upon this foundation, he argues that “power, force, energy, or necessary connexion” (p. 40) do not exist in reality, and are simply projections of our minds: “Consequently, there is not, in any single, particular instance of cause and effect, any thing which can suggest the idea of power or necessary connexion” (p. 41), and thus, we cannot “point out that circumstance in the cause, which gives it a connexion with its effect” (p. 51). (Incidentally, try to do physics without power, force or energy.) That is also why there can be no underlying nature or essence.

                All we experience are individual empirical events, one after the other, and each individual event lacks any underlying nature or teleology, i.e. the pointing beyond itself towards the direction of a specific possible outcome. Without such teleology, he argues that “Solidity, extension, motion; these qualities are all complete in themselves, and never point out any other event which may result from them” (p. 42). And this is why there is a problem of induction that is more radical than what you suppose, if you take Hume’s system seriously. This is because when we are confronted by X that has always in the past been followed by Y, then at the moment that X appears, there is literally nothing that points in the direction of Y happening, and X is “complete in [itself]”, because “[a]ll events seem entirely loose and separate” (p. 49). X stands facing into a void with nothing that points in any particular direction, and thus we can never say that Y will follow in reality, and are forced to just wait and see. Sure, we can impose our psychological projections upon X and imagine Y will happen, but there is nothing about X that causes Y to happen in reality. As he writes: “he now feels these events to be connected in his imagination” (p. 50).

                So, in reality, there is nothing but individual and particular events that are completely disconnected from one another, but our minds can impose connections through our imagination, which does not represent anything in reality. And this relates to your claim that things can “behave similarly to each other or be connected to each other” even without a shared underlying nature or essence. The problem is that if there is nothing in reality, such as an underlying nature that directs the behavior of individual beings, then you are stuck with Hume’s radical system and its incoherence. After all, you cannot generalize from one particular being to all beings in the same class, because there is no common class in reality, and each individual event stands as an island, completely independent and disconnected from all others.

        • Vaal
          Posted August 1, 2012 at 8:20 am | Permalink

          Re falling into a hole:

          dguller: “Exactly right, but the “hitting the bottom” to cause injury in that case, couldn’t be possible without the hole. The absence of something has an impact in the world by reorganizing what actually exists.”

          That has things the wrong way around. It’s not the “absence” that causes anything: it’s the things already there that are causes. The thing that is absent would simply be a new cause if it were there, but it’s mere “absence” does not “cause” anything.

          The hole is not mere “absence.” It’s not like there is nothing there having a positive influence on the outcome. Gravity is there – along with air pressure forces etc – causing the person to hit the ground.
          No complete, or even good explanation can be given for why the person hits the ground merely on “earth wasn’t there.” That doesn’t explain the phenomenon at all. What DOES explain it are appeals not to ABSENCE but to the EXISTENCE of other things – gravitational forces, air pressure, the hard ground etc.

          Same with, say, the suffering caused by starvation. If we ask why someone is suffering via starvation the answer can not simply be “absence of food.” Because that leaves us asking “Really? Why should I think the absence of food equates to or causes that suffering?”

          The actual explanation will point to things that exist, that are present: changes in the chemical processing in the body, a description of how the body uses up stores of glucose/glycogen, the processes that result in eating away of muscle, organs etc. The mere “absence of food” does not actually explain the cause of starvation/suffering.

          So the explanation for why X occurs appeals to what is there, what is happening, not what
          isn’t happening. An appeal to absence can say “But it would be different if Y were there” (e.g. someone would not be starving if they had food). Yes. But it is not the mere ABSENCE that actually explains the phenomena.

          So there is this equivocation, playing with words and concepts that goes on when people try to explain “bad” and “evil” as mere “absence.”

          Vaal

          • dguller
            Posted August 1, 2012 at 8:55 am | Permalink

            Vaal:

            That has things the wrong way around. It’s not the “absence” that causes anything: it’s the things already there that are causes. The thing that is absent would simply be a new cause if it were there, but it’s mere “absence” does not “cause” anything.

            Exactly right. That is why Aquinas says that evil does not exist per se. Non-being cannot actually exist or do anything. If anything happens, it must be by virtue of something actually real.

            The hole is not mere “absence.” It’s not like there is nothing there having a positive influence on the outcome. Gravity is there – along with air pressure forces etc – causing the person to hit the ground.
            No complete, or even good explanation can be given for why the person hits the ground merely on “earth wasn’t there.” That doesn’t explain the phenomenon at all. What DOES explain it are appeals not to ABSENCE but to the EXISTENCE of other things – gravitational forces, air pressure, the hard ground etc.

            Exactly right. The hole example was an analogy, and all analogies are imperfect, because they necessarily include differences amongst the similarities. But regardless, your points are spot on. The absence of something cannot cause anything, and if evil is the absence of being, then evil cannot cause anything. We can talk about it, but only in reference to what is there, and what is not there.

            So there is this equivocation, playing with words and concepts that goes on when people try to explain “bad” and “evil” as mere “absence.”

            I don’t think so. I think that your analysis is spot on, and actually makes the same points that Aquinas does. You just need to add the idea of existing beings that have a nature that they strive to actualize towards their final end(s), and identify that actualization as “good”, and the absence of that actualization as “bad”, and you’ve got the rest.

            • Vaal
              Posted August 1, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

              Well putting it in the realm of essence, final ends and striving for nature pretty much begs the question.

              Fred shoots John because Fred wants John’s watch.

              I presume this will be “bad” or “evil.”

              Simply intoning “Fred and John did not actualize their final end” tells us pretty much nothing about WHY they did not, and what was actually BAD about the particular action taken by Fred.

              Just like attributing someone hurting themselves to an “absence” (falling into a hole) does little to identify exactly what caused the problem. You always have to point to positive, existing phenomena to explain it.

              You may want to talk about how Fred shooting John thwarted their being able to realize their final ends. But you can not do so in a merely negative manner, because then you can not actually describe what happened and how the final end was thwarted. (E.g. pointing to the damage done to John’s body by the gunshot).

              So the badness of what happened between Fred and John just can’t be described in terms of mere absence; it just be described in terms of positive things that exist and occurred.

              You (or the T-Aristotelian) can decide to use the term “absence” if you want to describe the badness of the situation, but I’m going to point out I have no rational, compelling reason to go along with your use, since it is either uninformative or is a cover for a description of existing things that caused the badness.

              As always, I’m never interested in a description per se of any religion or philosophy or metaphysics – mere descriptions of systems someone believes; I’m interested in why I ought to accept the steps taken, and when I ask these questions
              T-Aristotelianism seems to just flop around, begging the question etc.

              Vaal

              • dguller
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 9:40 am | Permalink

                Vaal:

                Simply intoning “Fred and John did not actualize their final end” tells us pretty much nothing about WHY they did not, and what was actually BAD about the particular action taken by Fred.

                Right, but it gives you the overall structure of a possible explanation. There is something that Fred did that had the result of inhibiting the actualization of their final end(s). The questions are what Fred did, what the final end(s) is(are), and how it stopped those final end(s). The answers will fill in the details of the formal structure.

                Just like attributing someone hurting themselves to an “absence” (falling into a hole) does little to identify exactly what caused the problem. You always have to point to positive, existing phenomena to explain it.

                You actually have to point to both what did happen and what ought to have happened in order to discuss good and evil. The absence is important, because it identifies what should have been done in order to allow a being to maximize the actualization of its nature towards its final end(s), and the “positive, existing phenomena” are important, because they identify what actually happened. Reality is more than what actually occurs. It also includes potential, i.e. what could possibly occur. Any explanation must make mention of both actuality and potentiality if it purports to identify good and evil.

                You (or the T-Aristotelian) can decide to use the term “absence” if you want to describe the badness of the situation, but I’m going to point out I have no rational, compelling reason to go along with your use, since it is either uninformative or is a cover for a description of existing things that caused the badness.

                Is it uninformative to talk about what someone should have done or ought to have done? Can you really offer a value judgment of a situation by only describing what is the case without mentioning what ought to be the case? And if you include the latter, then you include “absence”, because what is possible is not actual, and what is actual is not possible. When Fred kills John, it is no longer possible that Fred kill John. It has happened, and is now actual. Before Fred killed John, it is possible.

              • Vaal
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 10:24 am | Permalink

                But then it seems we agree that “bad” or “evil” can not be described simply by appeal to an “absence.”

                So…what are we left debating? That was my objection: against the proposition that “evil” could be reduced to a mere “absence of X,” when it can not. Appeal only to absence is not fully explanatory. Explanations will always appeal to what DID happen or what COULD happen if real phenomena occurred. And to the degree pointing to an absence is explanatory, it is
                only to explain the way it would have an effect on the situation.

                For instance, what would have been a good action vs the bad action of Fred shooting John? Well, Fred could have offered money to John for his watch, and presuming that is agreeable to John then both “flourish” and that is a good action.

                But then, this is explained in terms of positive actions and phenomena, not “absence.”

                Now pointing to “absence” can be a short-hand for explanation: The engineer’s bridge collapsed and caused people’s deaths and hence was “bad.” One can say it was due to the absence of care on the part of the engineer, and that such care had it been present would not have thwarted the flourishing of the people who died.

                But that still remains an incomplete depiction, an incomplete description or explanation for exactly WHY the bridge collapsing thwarted the flourishing of it’s occupants. To really understand what happened you will have to appeal to the effects of things that were there (e.g. gravity, falling debris, water below that drowned them) not simply to “absence.”
                So the badness of the situation is not adequately described by mere “absence of good” which is why I reject it as both a descriptive or ontological claim.

                Vaal

              • dguller
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 10:57 am | Permalink

                Vaal:

                So the badness of the situation is not adequately described by mere “absence of good” which is why I reject it as both a descriptive or ontological claim.

                I don’t think you’re arguing against a position that anyone actually holds. The badness of a situation is described by virtue of both what did happen, because only actual beings have causal efficacy since non-being cannot do anything, and what should have happened, but didn’t, because ought implies possibility, which is not actual reality, i.e. “absence”. Again, you cannot only talk about absence to explain something, because – as you rightly pointed out – non-being cannot have any causal efficacy on its own, being nothing at all, and yet you have to include non-being in your account in order to explain the value judgment of what ought to have been, but wasn’t.

          • Posted August 1, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

            This is exactly right – and why in my work on events I do not admit so-called “negative” ones.

        • RF
          Posted August 2, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

          Second, if you want to say that what you draw is the perfect exemplification of “a triangle-like shape with crooked lines”, then you can certainly do so. But we are talking about triangles, which have a specific definition and specific properties.
          You’re begging the question. You’re saying ” ‘triangle’ is the appropriate standard, because that’s the standard I’ve chosen”.

          I admit that is certainly possible, but is it true? Is that really how humans process geometrical information?
          How we view things is irrelevant. Arguing that a triangle-like object is not a perfect triangle-like object because people don’t view it as such is silly, and is the appeal to majority that you later decry.

          Also, where does such nominalism lead? To the obliteration of all knowledge, because all you can have are particular entities with no common properties, and thus what you learn about X should have no bearing about Y at all.
          That makes no sense. A triangle and a triangle-like object with crooked lines share that common property of being triangle-like. That doesn’t mean that one is “better” than the other.

          We use “good” in a variety of contexts. What Aristotle tried to do, and Aquinas after him, was to try to identify the essence, so to speak, of goodness, which is common to all uses of “good”.
          And yet they presented a definition that corresponds to no use of “good”.

          That is your right, of course. I suppose that a layman who hears talk of quarks and flavors can dismiss the Standard Model just as easily.
          They can dismiss it just as “easily”, but not with as much validity. The Standard Model is not nonsense. This is. It’s using an established English word to mean something it doesn’t mean, and presenting no coherent definition for what it does mean.

          First, Aristotle did not speak English, and it is his definition of “goodness” that we are talking about.
          Do you seriously not understand that this makes your position even more nonsensical? I was considering making this point myself, but I figured we had gone far enough down the rabbit hole as it was. Clearly, Aristotle did not make any statements about what “good” means. He made statements about a word that you are translating as “good”. So, your response to someone saying “X is not good” is to say “Well, how about instead of analyzing whether it’s good, we instead analyze whether it fulfills the quality of some concept discussed by some ancient philosopher that I, for some reason, have chosen to translate ‘good’, even though it does not, in fact, mean ‘good.’” Seriously?!? If you want to claim that this is, in fact, a valid translation, that is a claim that you are making. Don’t try to lay it on Aristotle. Your argument may have been inspired by Aristotle, but it is not Aristotle’s. It is your argument (or perhaps the argument of some other English speaker who read either Aristotle’s writing or a translation).

          Third, finding a good definition – there’s that word again! – by revision is not necessarily a fraudulent practice.
          Taking a word that refers to a particular concept, and introducing another concept, and claiming that the word refers to that concept, and pretending that you are making statements about the original concept when you talk about the new concept is fradulent.

          Fourth, actualizing one’s nature is quite straightforward. Say that the essence of X is to do A, B, and C
          This is nonsense. You’re just defining one meaningless term with another. If I don’t accept that “actualizing one’s nature” is a meaningful phrase, what in the world makes you think I’ll accept “the essence of X is to do A,B, and C”? If X is not doing B and C, then obviously B and C are not part of its essence. This is the sort of sophistry that leads to the Catholic Church saying that homosexuality is evil because homosexuals are not “actualizing their nature” of having procreative sex (no mind that priests are not “actualizing their nature” in that regard, either). So what you’re presenting is not just some academic exercise in bullshitting; it has real-world implication, establishing a basis for pretty much any sort of bigotry, because you can declare any group has any “nature” you want (and what one considers someone’s “nature” will invariably be influenced by what prejudices one grew up with). Black people aren’t actualizing their nature of being slaves! Women aren’t actualizing their nature of being stay-at-home moms! Handicapped people aren’t actualizing their nature of being left to the wolves! Discussions of morality should focus on whether anyone’s being hurt, not on ridiculous, arbitrary, and subjective arguments as to what someone’s “nature” is.

          • dguller
            Posted August 2, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

            RF:

            You’re begging the question. You’re saying ” ‘triangle’ is the appropriate standard, because that’s the standard I’ve chosen”.

            No, I’m saying that when people say that something is good, they usually mean a particular thing. If a knife is dull, then we do not say that it is a good knife. If a knife is sharp, then we say that it is a good knife. This is the empirical data that we are using to determine what “good” means. One possible interpretation of this data is that “good” refers to the degree to which something exemplifies its nature, which is intrinsically related to how well it reaches its final end(s). In that case, a good X is simply one that actualizes its nature to a maximal degree to achieve its final end(s). This is not entirely made up out of whole cloth, but is supposed to explain what we mean when we say that X is good.

            How we view things is irrelevant. Arguing that a triangle-like object is not a perfect triangle-like object because people don’t view it as such is silly, and is the appeal to majority that you later decry.

            That’s fine. One can certainly come up with complicated and sophisticated theories about Harry Potter’s universe, and there may even be a useful role for such theories, but when you are trying to understand our world, then we should use data from our world, and not something arbitrary and contrived. So, if your theory has no empirical data to justify it, then why take it seriously, other than as a logical, hypothetical possibility?

            That makes no sense. A triangle and a triangle-like object with crooked lines share that common property of being triangle-like. That doesn’t mean that one is “better” than the other.

            No, a triangle is not “triangle-like”. It is a triangle, period. And “better” is meaningless independent of a particular standard.

            And yet they presented a definition that corresponds to no use of “good”.

            That is untrue. No-one ever refers to a good knife as one that maximizes its sharpness to cut things? Really? You can certainly say that the Aristotelian definition of “goodness” may be a stretch in some cases, such as with living biological entities rather than artifacts, but to say that there is no empirical data to support it is just false.

            They can dismiss it just as “easily”, but not with as much validity. The Standard Model is not nonsense. This is. It’s using an established English word to mean something it doesn’t mean, and presenting no coherent definition for what it does mean.

            Untrue. The definition is an abstraction from everyday use. It is like a generalization based upon empirical data. You look at a number of uses of the word “good” and you try to find a common aspect that they all share. This may be impossible, because “good” does not refer to a single property, much like “game” does not refer to a single property, but rather is more like a family resemblance. However, looking for a deeper meaning to a common word is not prima facie an invalid procedure.

            Taking a word that refers to a particular concept, and introducing another concept, and claiming that the word refers to that concept, and pretending that you are making statements about the original concept when you talk about the new concept is fradulent.

            Really? “Atom” originally meant “indivisible, tiny things that combine to make reality”. Using “atom” to refer to atoms, which are not indivisible, would be “fraudulent”, according to you, even though it more accurately represents what an atom is supposed to be.

            If I don’t accept that “actualizing one’s nature” is a meaningful phrase, what in the world makes you think I’ll accept “the essence of X is to do A,B, and C”? If X is not doing B and C, then obviously B and C are not part of its essence.

            And I’m trying to explain what I mean. Trust me, it is not meaningless, even though you really don’t want to even give it a charitable reading. I’ll try again. If you assume that individual beings have a nature, which is defined as the set of properties that define what they are, then there is a difference between those beings who manifest those properties in reality, and those who do not manifest those properties in reality, but could. If a being is manifesting those properties in reality, then it is considered to be actualizing its nature. For example, if the nature of a ball is to bounce, then a bouncing ball has actualized its nature, whereas a ball sitting on the floor has not actualized its nature. That is because the bouncing ball is manifesting its nature in reality, whereas the sitting ball only has the potential to do so, and what is potential is not actual. That’s all. It’s not complicated.

            So what you’re presenting is not just some academic exercise in bullshitting; it has real-world implication, establishing a basis for pretty much any sort of bigotry, because you can declare any group has any “nature” you want (and what one considers someone’s “nature” will invariably be influenced by what prejudices one grew up with).

            I guess that we should stop teaching the theory of evolution, because if each organism is acting according to their own survival, then it justifies selfishness and deception, if they lead to improved individual fitness. Of course, this is ridiculous, because all that matters is the truth, irrespective of its implications. I mean, perhaps you would have prohibited Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin from publishing their theories, because it may have led to widespread depression at not being the center of the universe? And for the record, although I am inclined to agree with natural law theory, I don’t think it is as easily applicable as the Catholic Church does it.

            • RF
              Posted August 2, 2012 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

              No, I’m saying that when people say that something is good, they usually mean a particular thing.
              That doesn’t address my point at all.

              One possible interpretation of this data is that “good” refers to the degree to which something exemplifies its nature
              That’s not an interpretation of the “data” (and you’re really stretching the meaning of “data” her), that’s simply going off and making your own assertion, and trying to cram existing data into it. It quite definitely is made up of “whole cloth”. You haven’t presented any reasoning going from your “data” to your conclusion.

              In that case, a good X is simply one that actualizes its nature to a maximal degree to achieve its final end(s).
              Now you’re introducing yet another undefined term, and pretending that it means the same thing as “nature”.

              but when you are trying to understand our world, then we should use data from our world, and not something arbitrary and contrived.
              You really are doing very poorly at writing coherent posts. We now have (at least) three separate issues that you are jumping around about, equivocating and obfuscating yourself away from criticism. There’s whether a triangle-like object is a perfect triangle-like object, there’s what an object’s “nature” is, and there’s what “good” means. “Good” is an English word, and so it is legitimate to look at what people think it means to evaluate what it means. Whether a triangle-like object is a perfect triangle-like object, on the other hand, is not an empirical issue, and so it makes no sense for you to be nattering on about “data from our world”.

              So, if your theory has no empirical data to justify it, then why take it seriously, other than as a logical, hypothetical possibility?
              I’m not presenting a theory. Neither are you, by the way. The word “theory” means much more than “stuff I’m pulling out of my ass”.

              No, a triangle is not “triangle-like”. It is atriangle, period.
              You’re playing word games. Triangles and triangle-like objects share a property. Nit-picking about what label we’re going to use for that property is not a productive enterprise.

              And “better” is meaningless independent of a particularstandard.
              That is exactly my point.

              “And yet they presented a definition that corresponds to no use of “good”.”
              That is untrue. No-one ever refers to a good knife as one that maximizes its sharpness to cut things?

              If you want to refute someone’s statement, then present a refutation. Attacking a strawman is just childish.

              but to say that there is no empirical data to support it is just false.
              Only if you’re using an extremely broad sense of “empirical data”, as in the “raven paradox”, where seeing a purple cow constitutes empirical data in support of the claim that all ravens are black.

              The definition is an abstraction from everyday use.
              It’s not what people mean by “good”. You can use all the weasel words you want, like “abstraction”, or “generalization”, or whatever, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s not what it means.

              However, looking for a deeper meaning to a common word is not prima facie an invalid procedure.
              Trying to find a meaning for a word outside of what it’s understood to mean is an invalid procedure.

              Really? “Atom” originally meant “indivisible, tiny things that combine to make reality”. Using “atom” to refer to atoms, which are not indivisible, would be “fraudulent”, according to you, even though it more accurately represents what an atom is supposed to be.
              Saying that a statement is “according to me”, when I have said no such thing, is lying. I quite specifically said “…and pretending that you are making statements about the original concept…” Since the “original” meaning of atom is no longer current, and scientists make absolutely no claim that their statements constitute assertions regarding the “original” meaning of “atom”, they are not being fraudulent. In your case, however, “good” is still a current word having a specific meaning, and you are trying to use a completely different meaning and pass of statements about that meaning as referring to the actual meaning.

              Trust me, it is not meaningless
              That would require two things: I have confidence that you will assert that something has meaning only when you believe that it has meaning, and I have confidence that you will believe that something has meaning only when it does in fact have meaning. The first, I am not particularly skeptical of, but the second I am. In my experience, people have great capacity to convince themselves that there is meaning where there is not. Furthermore, what you have posted so far is meaningless. Whether you have some secret meaning that you have been unable to communicate is not particularly relevant.

              even though you really don’t want to even give it a charitable reading.
              Charity is for people, not for balderdash.

              If you assume that individual beings have a nature, which is defined as the set of properties that define what they are, then there is a difference between those beings who manifest those properties in reality, and those who do not manifest those properties in reality, but could.
              No. A being’s nature is, by definition, the properties that it manifest. Every being manifest all properties that are part of its nature. I’ve been saying this from the very beginning. You’ve spent hundreds of words evading this central issue.

              For example, if the nature of a ball is to bounce, then a bouncing ball has actualized its nature, whereas a ball sitting on the floor has not actualized its nature… That’s all. It’s not complicated.
              Yes, “If X is in its nature, then X is in its nature” isn’t very complicated. In fact, it’s so simple as to be meaningless. Presumably, how you decide whether something is part of its “nature” is by whether it would be good for it to have that. Which makes your definition of “good” completely circular, meaningless, and useless.

              I guess that we should stop teaching the theory of evolution, because if each organism is acting according to their own survival, then it justifies selfishness and deception
              No, it doesn’t. Even ignoring the fact that you are simplifying evolution, evolution says what is, not what ought to be. Any attempt to use that to make a statement about what is “justified” is completely illegitimate. This is something that has been pointed out ad nauseum. It’s difficult to believe that anyone who has studied philosophy enough to be familiar with Aristotle is unfamiliar with this, so when you post such a ridiculous argument whose refutation is so widely know, your good faith is really called into question. And given that you are posting arguments that not only are apparently disingenuous, but are a major philosophical underpinning of bigotry against gays and others, I really have to question your morality.

              Of course, this is ridiculous, because all that matters is the truth, irrespective of its implications. I mean, perhaps you would have prohibited Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin from publishing their theories, because it may have led to widespread depression at not being the center of the universe?Again, you are trying to compare empirical, objective facts with moral statements. The theory of evolution and the heliocentric theory make statements about the world. You are making statements about morality. You can’t say “Hey, homosexuality is evil”, and then when someone “Saying that leads to homosexuals being beaten up” say “That’s ridiculous, because all that matters is the truth”. The nexus between the theory of evolution being published, and people completely mutilating the theory to justify positions that they already had and were just looking for excuses for, is simply not comparable to the nexus of putting forth a moral philosophy that is ready-made for prejudices, bigotry, and oppression, and people actually engaging in prejudice, bigotry, and oppression. My moral code says that hurting people is bad. So if someone wants to argue that X is bad, they have to actually show how it hurts someone. Your moral code says that not “actualizing one’s nature” is bad. So if you want to argue that X is bad, all you have to do is argue that not doing X is somehow “natural”. And what people consider “natural” is COMPLETELY DEPENDENT on their biases, prejudices, and indoctrination. Making ridiculous arguments regarding purely academic matters is just a waste of time. Making ridiculous arguments in favor of oppression, on the hand, is morally wrong.

            • dguller
              Posted August 3, 2012 at 9:58 am | Permalink

              RF:

              That doesn’t address my point at all.

              It does. You implied that the concepts involved in Aristotelian metaphysics were just invented out of whole cloth with no empirical grounding whatsoever. I was trying to explain the procedure by which an Aristotelian takes commonplace empirical occurrences, and tried to organize them into a coherent framework. And one such commonplace empirical occurrence is that people talk about dogs being good, good knives, good fathers, and so on, and an Aristotelian tries to find something that all these uses have in common. But to simply deny that people talk about “goodness” doesn’t make any sense.

              That’s not an interpretation of the “data” (and you’re really stretching the meaning of “data” her), that’s simply going off and making your own assertion, and trying to cram existing data into it. It quite definitely is made up of “whole cloth”. You haven’t presented any reasoning going from your “data” to your conclusion.

              No, I’m not. Data is just an accumulation of information, in this case, people talking about things being “good”, and trying to understand what they mean. Aristotle didn’t start with a definition of “good” that he just imposed upon the world, but observed people using the word “good”, and trying to understand whether there were any essential properties that were present in all instances of the use of “good”. Whether he was correct or not is irrelevant to the fact that it is based upon real events in the world, which are used as data for a hypothesis.

              Now you’re introducing yet another undefined term, and pretending that it means the same thing as “nature”.

              Any elaboration of a definition will introduce more words. That is not, in itself, an objection, because that would compromise all definitions. And I don’t understand why you keep saying that I am “pretending”. I am just telling you what these terms mean, in an Aristotelian framework. Which specific words in my account do you not understand?

              The “essence” or “nature” of X is that which defines what X is. There are a number of X’s in the world, and some actually do what they are supposed to be doing, and some actually do not do what they are supposed to do. The more X actually does what it is supposed to do, the more it actualizes its nature. The less X actually does what it is supposed to do, the less it actualizes its nature. When you talk about what X is supposed to be doing, you are talking about its teleology, or directedness towards some end, which is all that is meant by “final end”. So, when you put it all together: X is good = X is maximally actualizing its nature towards the realization of its final end(s). Honestly, you may disagree with this definition, and find it utterly useless, but it certainly has sense and meaning.

              You really are doing very poorly at writing coherent posts.

              You may be right. I’ll try to do better.

              “Good” is an English word, and so it is legitimate to look at what people think it means to evaluate what it means.

              Great.

              Whether a triangle-like object is a perfect triangle-like object, on the other hand, is not an empirical issue, and so it makes no sense for you to be nattering on about “data from our world”.

              It does make sense to look at what people mean when they talk about a “good triangle”, and that is empirical. When a student of geometry draws a triangle, and the teacher says, “that is a good triangle”, then would you expect it to have wobbly lines, lines that are disconnected at points, blurry edges, and rounded intersecting points? I don’t think so. The more straight the lines, the more the internal angles add up to 180 degrees, and so on, would be what you would expect of a “good triangle”.

              Now, the student who drew the sloppy triangle could respond to the teacher that he drew a perfectly wonderful and good triangle-like shape, but that was not the talk of the student. Now, that student could go on to develop his own geometry involving triangle-like shapes, square-like shapes, each perfectly drawn with wobbly and crooked lines, and maybe that geometry will be scientifically useful somehow. That would be great, but when we are talking about triangles, then a triangle-like shape would be an example of a bad triangle. That’s something that you could even do an empirical study of, i.e. what people consider a good triangle. So, there is data from our world that is relevant to what counts as a good triangle.

              Also, even if it is true that a triangle-like drawing is a good example of a triangle-like shape, that would not serve as a refutation of the Aristotelian conception of “goodness”, which is supposed to apply whenever you say that X is a good Y. It still makes sense to say that the triangle-like drawing is good iff that drawing maximally exemplifies the ideal triangle-like nature. At most, you could argue that there are lots of possible natures out there, and that picking which to prioritize in our sciences could be challenging.

              I’m not presenting a theory.

              Then what are you presenting?

              The word “theory” means much more than “stuff I’m pulling out of my ass”.

              Agreed.

              You’re playing word games. Triangles and triangle-like objects share a property. Nit-picking about what label we’re going to use for that property is not a productive enterprise.

              First, what are the properties of a “triangle-like object”? It seems that this definition would be parasitic upon “triangle”, and thus that “triangle” would be primary, no?

              Second, I am talking about what people talk about. When someone talks about a triangle, they are not talking about a triangle-like object. Ask around.

              That is exactly my point.

              Then we agree. And?

              If you want to refute someone’s statement, then present a refutation. Attacking a strawman is just childish.

              I just did. You argued that there was no examples of the Aristotelian definition of “goodness” that matched how people actually use the word “good”. I provided a counter-example, which refuted your generalization. A single exception disproves the rule.

              And I don’t know what the “strawman” is here. You reject the Aristotelian definition of “good” as made-up fantasy with no connection to reality. I provided an example where it matches what happens in reality, and thus refute your accusation that it freely floats above reality, never connecting with it.

              Only if you’re using an extremely broad sense of “empirical data”, as in the “raven paradox”, where seeing a purple cow constitutes empirical data in support of the claim that all ravens are black.

              No, I am not. I am just looking at what people do, and try to generalize from their particular actions towards a broader theory that explains what they are doing. If “looking at what people do” is a problematic example of “empirical data”, then I don’t know what counts under your narrow definition. Furthermore, I would say that seeing a purple cow does not refute the claim that all ravens are black, but it is irrelevant to it. However, my claims about “goodness” actually use real examples of people talking about “good” things as data. So, your claim is just irrelevant, although logically interesting.

              It’s not what people mean by “good”. You can use all the weasel words you want, like “abstraction”, or “generalization”, or whatever, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s not what it means.

              First, what do people mean by “good”?

              Second, sometimes people can use a word with a different sense, but the same referent. For example, the Morning Star and the Evening Star have different senses, but the same referent. Perhaps there are different senses of “good”, but they share a common referent, i.e. the Aristotelian definition of “good”. I mean, a nuclear physicist and a layperson can both talk about “atoms”, but they will likely have different senses despite a common referent. In other words, an expert will have a more sophisticated understanding and sense than a layperson, but they are still both talking about the same thing.

              Third, you have given no argument against abstracting or generalizing from everyday phenomena to a broader principle. Do you deny that human beings have the capacity to do this? Or, do you agree that they can, but that this generalization is simply false? I think the latter is much more reasonable.

              Trying to find a meaning for a word outside of what it’s understood to mean is an invalid procedure.

              Then it was inappropriate to study the Evening Star and the Morning Star. After all, people meant different stars by those terms, and yet in reality, they were referring to the planet Venus, which is not a star at all. I would say something similar for “good”. People use “good” in a variety of ways, which would correspond to their different senses, and yet they all refer to the same thing, i.e. “goodness”, which can be defined in an Aristotelian fashion. That would make sense of the situation nicely, I think. So, we start with what people mean by “good”, which is the sense, and then we explore whether we can understand its referent further. After all, “sense” is inherently related to how something appears to us in a particular perspective, and yet we all agree that there is a reality behind the appearance that we can understand and study.

              In my experience, people have great capacity to convince themselves that there is meaning where there is not. Furthermore, what you have posted so far is meaningless. Whether you have some secret meaning that you have been unable to communicate is not particularly relevant.

              Which specific words do you find “meaningless”? I mean, they may be false, but that is not your claim. You are claiming that the word lack meaningful content, and are equivalent to a “square triangle”, which is simply incoherent. So, which words and concepts do you find incoherent and meaningless?

              No. A being’s nature is, by definition, the properties that it manifest. Every being manifest all properties that are part of its nature. I’ve been saying this from the very beginning. You’ve spent hundreds of words evading this central issue.

              Not exactly. A being can have a nature that is fails to manifest. For example, you can say that the nature of a ball is to bounce, and yet it stays on the floor, and is never used. In that case, its nature is not what is manifests, but is actually what it does not manifest. However, you are correct that it makes no sense that in the totality of beings with nature X, no beings ever manifest the properties that make up X. But, it does make sense for a particular being with nature X to not manifest the properties that make up X, or at least some of those properties.

              Presumably, how you decide whether something is part of its “nature” is by whether it would be good for it to have that. Which makes your definition of “good” completely circular, meaningless, and useless.

              First, let’s apply your principles to “movement”. You watch something “move”, and want to understand what “movement” consists of. Well, you see it change location in space-time. Hm. What do you mean by “change”? Maybe something like, “X was once A, and it is now B”. But that involves “time”, which is part of “space-time”. Hmm. So, to define movement, you need to include change, which includes time. And what is “time”? Hmm. This is a tough one to define in a non-circular way that does not already involve the concept of “change”, which necessarily involves “time”. I guess “change” is circular, too, and so we cannot define “movement”, either. Aw shucks. There goes all of physics.

              Second, “good” is just a descriptive term of an underlying process unfolding in reality. You have particular entities with specific natures striving to actualize or exemplify their natures as much as possible, and that striving is towards the direction of their final end. “Good” is just what we say when a particular entity maximally actualizes its nature. You can refuse to use that word at all, if you like, but it is useful shorthand for this underlying process. So, the real issues are (1) are there essences and natures? (2) If there are, then how do you identify them?

              So, this definition might be “useless”, because there are no such things as essences or natures in reality, and thus it is pointing towards something that does not exist. Or, it might be “useless”, because we simply lack the methodology or tools to reliably identify natures or essences. I think that the latter point has more validity than the former.

              evolution says what is, not what ought to be.

              First, evolution, like all biological processes, involves teleology, although it tries mightily to deny it. There is a directedness in nature in which actual entities strive to actualize various potential ends, whether individual survival, or genetic transmission, or whatever. Once you accept this, then you see that what ought to be the case is built into evolution, even though it may be difficult to identify in all cases what ought to be the case.

              Second, it doesn’t matter what evolution says, but rather what people could infer from it. Not everyone is a philosopher who understands the naturalistic fallacy, and so many people could look at evolutionary outcomes, see that selfishness and deception is the norm, and infer that they are justified behaviors in their own lives. So, to avoid this potential danger, by your reasoning, we should not teach evolution.

              And given that you are posting arguments that not only are apparently disingenuous, but are a major philosophical underpinning of bigotry against gays and others, I really have to question your morality.

              Nice ad hominem there, but it’s a misfire. In actuality, I’m a liberal atheist with Aristotelian sympathies.

              Your moral code says that not “actualizing one’s nature” is bad. So if you want to argue that X is bad, all you have to do is argue that not doing X is somehow “natural”. And what people consider “natural” is COMPLETELY DEPENDENT on their biases, prejudices, and indoctrination.

              Exactly, but that is a problem with people and not with the theory. Just because a theory can be abused does not falsify that theory. Evolutionary theory can be used to justify social Darwinism, which can lead to the approval of eugenics, and other horrors. That does not falsify evolutionary theory.

              Oh, and the is-ought dichotomy is not as crisp and distinct as you are making it out to be. What is the case is discovered by inquiry, which is governed by values, such as consistency, honesty, objectivity, and so on. So, for us to know anything, we must have values, and those values only hold, because of how the world operates. For example, consistency is what we observe, and thus what we expect to observe, which is just another way of saying what ought to be the case. So, we include it as a value in our theorizing. What is the case involves a directedness towards what ought to be the case. Otherwise, how could we ever predict anything, or truly understand anything other than the particulars of this moment?

              • RF
                Posted August 3, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

                Whether he was correct or not is irrelevant to the fact that it is based upon real events in the world, which are used as data for a hypothesis.
                Cherry-picking data to support a hypothesis is not quite the same as basing it on data. One could, technically, claim that “a golden retriever is a type of cat” is based on empirical data, and then list a bunch of facts that support it: cats are a type of pet, golden retrievers are a type of pet, etc., etc., but no one honestly all available analyzing data would conclude that a golden retriever is a type of cat.

                Any elaboration of a definition will introduce more words.No, good elaborations are based on old words with established meanings. It true that it might be necessary to introduce new terms with new meanings, but there should be a preference to avoid that. And if you introduce a new term, then you now need to introduce of definition of that term. Just jumping from one term to another, allowing ambiguity to pile upon ambiguity, is one of the trademark tactics of sophistry.

                And I don’t understand why you keep saying that I am “pretending”. I am just telling you what these terms mean, in an Aristotelian framework.When you just plop a term down into your argument, with no definition, the implied assertion is that you don’t need a definition because you’re just using in its everyday sense. If I were introducing a mathematical framework, and using everyday words to refer to things in my framework, I would be careful to define each term and make it clear that they all have a precise meaning. My Aristotelian philosophy is a bit rusty, but I believe he identified four different types of “cause”, and the term “ends” is similarly ambiguous, so your use of the term, even with the Aristotelian framework, is not precise.

                There are a number of X’s in the world, and some actually do what they are supposed to be doing, and some actually do not do what they are supposed to do.
                See, more ambiguity. What does this term “supposed to” mean?

                When you talk about what X is supposed to be doing, you are talking about its teleology, or directedness towards some end, which is all that is meant by “final end”.
                So now you’ve introduced an entirely new can of worms of teleology.

                So, when you put it all together: X is good = X is maximally actualizing its nature towards the realization of its final end(s).
                So, something is good if it does what it want it to do? That’s not an attribute of the object, but of the object in conjunction with my wants. You also seem to be assuming a creator, without actually discussing the issue. If someone makes a knife, and I buy it, whose purpose counts: mine, or the person who made it?

                i
                So, there is data from our world that is relevant to what counts as a good triangle.
                But that’s that what I was discussing.

                Also, even if it is true that a triangle-like drawing is a good example of a triangle-like shape, that would not serve as a refutation of the Aristotelian conception of “goodness”, which is supposed to apply whenever you say that X is a good Y.
                That’s the whole point I’m making. Your definition of “good” has two inputs, the object, and the nature. You’re trying to pretend that the nature is derived from the object, and so there is only one essential input. But if we use the nature of the object, then the object by definition is perfectly actualizing its own nature. The only way the definition makes sense if we introduce some other nature exterior to the object. Goodness is not a property of any object, any more than distance is a property of a single point. This is the central issue, and it’s taken us how long to get here? This is a tribute to your obfuscation and failure to put forth what you’re really asserting.

                Then what are you presenting?
                A denial of your position.

                First, what are the properties of a “triangle-like object”? It seems that this definition would be parasitic upon “triangle”, and thus that “triangle” would be primary, no?
                Just because the structure of the English language makes it difficult to discuss the concept without reference to triangles does not mean that the concept is parasitic upon the concept of “triangle”.

                Second, I am talking about what people talk about.
                More begging the question.

                I just did. You argued that there was no examples of the Aristotelian definition of “goodness” that matched how people actually use the word “good”.
                For two meanings to match, they must match in all cases. “Prime” and “odd” do not mean the same thing, even though there are numbers that are both.

                A single exception disproves the rule.
                ::sigh:: Assuming you’re presenting this as a general principle, that’s an incredibly simplistic statement that is clearly is not true. If all statements can be disproven with a single case, then all negations can be disproven with a single case, which means that every statement can be proven with a single case.

                And I don’t know what the “strawman” is here.
                That I deny that people “refer to a good knife as one that maximizes its sharpness to cut things”.

                If “looking at what people do” is a problematic example of “empirical data”, then I don’t know what counts under your narrow definition.
                What counts is making a good faith effort to look for contradictory data, and such a search would surely provide examples. For instance, part of a knife’s nature is to dull with use, and yet no one refers to a knife that dulls with maximum speed as “good”.

                Furthermore, I would say that seeing a purple cow does not refute the claim that all ravens are black, but it is irrelevant to it.
                This is a digression, but a purple cow is in fact relevant, and is in some ways analogous to your data, but it probably would not be worth the time to explain how.

                Third, you have given no argument against abstracting or generalizing from everyday phenomena to a broader principle.
                You have given no argument for it, or even a precise definition of, what you mean. Before we could discuss it, we would have to engage in an extensive discussion of what your terms actually mean, which as we’ve seen, is a rather difficult task.

                Then it was inappropriate to study the Evening Star and the Morning Star. After all, people meant differentstars by those terms, and yet in reality, they were referring to the planet Venus, which is not a star at all.
                If, by “Evening Star”, people truly meant “the phenomenon of light coming from the sky near the sun in the Evening”, then “Venus” is not the “Evening Star”. If, however, by “Evening Star”, they were referring to the source of that light, then there an objective reality by which we can say that the Evening Star is Venus. There is no objective reality by which we can say that “this good” is really “that good”.

                So, which words and concepts do you find incoherent and meaningless?
                Under your definition, “X is good” is meaningless. “Good” is not a property of an object, but rather is a description of the relationship the object has with some standard (that must be named). Objects aren’t “good”, under this definition, any more than they are “close” or “east”.

                Not exactly. A being can have a nature that is fails to manifest. For example, you can say that the nature of a ball is to bounce, and yet it stays on the floor, and is never used.
                You’re simply arguing by assertion. Bouncing is not part of the essential nature of a ball.

                However, you are correct that it makes no sense that in the totality of beings with nature X, no beings ever manifest the properties that make up X. But, it does make sense for aparticular being with nature X to not manifest the properties that make up X, or at least some of those properties.
                You said that “nature” refers to that which defines something. If two things have the same nature, then they are the same thing. You’re equivocating as to whether “nature” refers to a particular property of something, or the totality of its properties. If Y is an essential property of the category X, and Z does not exhibit Y, then Z is not a member of X. If we’re allowed to introduce non-essential properties, then we can say that some balls are red, so all non-red balls are non actualizing the nature of balls. In fact, we can say since some balls don’t bounce, balls that do bounce are not actualizing the nature of balls. Also, “nature” is not transferable from a category to things in that category. Saying “That’s a ball, it’s the nature of balls to bounce, therefore it’s the nature of that to bounce” is a fallacy.

                First, let’s apply your principles to “movement”.
                How about first you say what you think my principles are?

                I guess “change” is circular, too, and so we cannot define “movement”, either. Aw shucks. There goes all of physics.
                We have ways of detecting movement. We have ways of detecting change. We have ways of detecting time. These are not concepts that have clear meaning and come from empirical data. Your concepts, however, have no meaning except in terms of each other, and are based on no empirical data.

                You have particular entities with specific natures striving to actualize or exemplify their natures as much as possible, and that striving is towards the direction of their final end.
                Oh, please. Knives do not “strive” to be sharp.

                First, evolution, like all biological processes, involves teleology, although it tries mightily to deny it. There is a directedness in nature in which actual entities strive to actualize various potential ends, whether individual survival, or genetic transmission, or whatever.
                Wow. You just refuse to accept that you’re wrong, don’t you? Evolution is a non-teleological process. If you want to say that life on Earth is not due to evolution, that doesn’t change the fact that evolution is non-teleological (and it shows even more divorced from reality).

                Second, it doesn’t matter what evolution says, but rather what people could infer from it.
                No, because anyone can infer whatever they want.

                So, to avoid this potential danger, by your reasoning, we should not teach evolution.
                AGAIN, it’s quite annoying you to be telling me what my reasoning is. It’s just offensive that not only are you promoting a pro-oppression philosophy, but you’re engaging in sophistry to try to claim that evolution is just as bad.

                Nice ad hominem there, but it’s a misfire. In actuality, I’m a liberal atheist with Aristotelian sympathies.
                Either you are completely clueless as to what such basic terms as “ad hominem” means, or you’re just being dishonest. “Ad hominem” is when you criticize an argument based on who is making it. I’m criticizing you because of the argument that you’re making, which is the opposite of an ad hominem.

                Just because a theory can be abused does not falsify that theory.
                There’s a massive chasm between “can be completely mutilated to rationalize something” and “is ready-made for something”.

                Evolutionary theory can be used to justify social Darwinism
                No, it can’t.

                That does not falsify evolutionary theory.
                Even if it teaching it were to lead to bad outcomes, the fact remains that it is a scientific theory, and bad outcomes do not falsify evolutionary theory. What you are presenting is a moral claim, and moral claims are falsified by bad outcomes.

                For example, consistency is what we observe, and thus what we expect to observe, which is just another way of saying what ought to be the case.
                First, you’re equivocating between “ought” as in “what we should do” and “ought” as in “what we expect”. Secondly, this shows that “ought” affect what we believe. It doesn’t show that “ought” affects what is, and it most certainly does not show that what is affects “ought”.

              • dguller
                Posted August 3, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

                RF:

                Cherry-picking data to support a hypothesis is not quite the same as basing it on data. One could, technically, claim that “a golden retriever is a type of cat” is based on empirical data, and then list a bunch of facts that support it: cats are a type of pet, golden retrievers are a type of pet, etc., etc., but no one honestly all available analyzing data would conclude that a golden retriever is a type of cat.

                Fair enough. What are the counter-examples in which someone says that “X is good”, but it cannot fit into the Aristotelian scheme?

                My Aristotelian philosophy is a bit rusty, but I believe he identified four different types of “cause”, and the term “ends” is similarly ambiguous, so your use of the term, even with the Aristotelian framework, is not precise.

                An end is simply that which a being is directed towards becoming. It is the penultimate endpoint of the development of a sequence of events. That is all teleology is supposed to be about, i.e. the inherent directedness that we observe in nature.

                See, more ambiguity. What does this term “supposed to” mean?

                It is not ambiguous, if you are reading what I have written earlier. It refers to the actualization of a thing’s nature, which means the actual occurrence in reality of what a thing ideally is supposed to be. For example, if you have a definition of a perfect X, then the actual occurrence of a perfect X would be X being what it is supposed to be.

                So now you’ve introduced an entirely new can of worms of teleology.

                You have a bigger can of worms without teleology. For example, accounting for intentionality is impossible without teleology. Good luck explaining how a series of firing neurons can refer to a cat. If you deny the intrinsic directedness in nature in which one thing points beyond itself towards something else, then you simply cannot make sense of what is happening around you.

                So, something is good if it does what it want it to do? That’s not an attribute of the object, but of the object in conjunction with my wants. You also seem to be assuming a creator, without actually discussing the issue.

                Wants and desires are specific kinds of teleology, which are manifested by particular biological organisms with sufficiently sophisticated nervous systems. Most teleology is unconscious, and simply refers to the directedness towards a particular set of possible outcomes that occurs in nature. And although this has possible implications for a divine intelligence, it does not necessarily implicate the requirement for a divine intellect. That is a separate issue altogether.

                If someone makes a knife, and I buy it, whose purpose counts: mine, or the person who made it?

                It would depend upon the context. Discovering the nature of X often depends upon the perspective that is being used. Furthermore, in your example, I would say that the primary purpose would initially be whatever the creator designed it for, but additional purposes could be discovered, which over time, could become the primary purpose.

                Your definition of “good” has two inputs, the object, and the nature. You’re trying to pretend that the nature is derived from the object, and so there is only one essential input. But if we use the nature of the object, then the object by definition is perfectly actualizing its own nature. The only way the definition makes sense if we introduce some other nature exterior to the object. Goodness is not a property of any object, any more than distance is a property of a single point. This is the central issue, and it’s taken us how long to get here? This is a tribute to your obfuscation and failure to put forth what you’re really asserting.

                It is not true that “if we use the nature of the object, then the object by definition is perfectly actualizing its nature”. If you say that X and Y both share the common nature A, but X is a better example of A than Y, then you cannot say that Y is “perfectly actualizing its nature”. It clearly isn’t, because it is an imperfect example of A when compared to X. True, X is what it is in reality, and Y is what it is in reality, as well, but there is more to reality than what is actually occurring. There is potentiality and possibility, as well. Y could have been a better example of A, if there wasn’t something inhibiting its expression of its nature, for example.

                But you are right that goodness is not a “property of any object”. It is simply the way we talk about how well that object expresses its underlying nature.

                Just because the structure of the English language makes it difficult to discuss the concept without reference to triangles does not mean that the concept is parasitic upon the concept of “triangle”.

                How does it make sense to say that something is X-like without being parasitic upon X?

                For two meanings to match, they must match in all cases. “Prime” and “odd” do not mean the same thing, even though there are numbers that are both.

                The fact that there are numbers that do not meet both indiciates that they are different. Perhaps providing an example in which you say that X is good, which cannot possibly be accounted for by an Aristotelian framework?

                ::sigh:: Assuming you’re presenting this as a general principle, that’s an incredibly simplistic statement that is clearly is not true. If all statements can be disproven with a single case, then all negations can be disproven with a single case, which means that every statement can be proven with a single case.

                I didn’t say that all statements could be disproven with a single case, but I would agree that all general or universal statements could be disproven with a single exception. “All X’s are Y” is false if there is a single X that is not-Y.

                That I deny that people “refer to a good knife as one that maximizes its sharpness to cut things”.

                Great. Then you cannot say that the Aristotelian definition of “goodness” has no basis in reality. There may be cases and examples in which it is a poor fit, or perhaps where it cannot fit at all, but there are instances where it works very well. That is all I was trying to say.

                For instance, part of a knife’s nature is to dull with use, and yet no one refers to a knife that dulls with maximum speed as “good”.

                Except that dullness is not what the knife is for. It is for cutting, and so the less sharp it is, the less good it is as a knife. Just because something happens to a thing does not necessarily mean it is part of its nature. Now, that raises an important problem, which is how exactly one goes about identifying what behavioral outcomes count as essential versus non-essential, and this is often extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to do.

                You have given no argument for it, or even a precise definition of, what you mean. Before we could discuss it, we would have to engage in an extensive discussion of what your terms actually mean, which as we’ve seen, is a rather difficult task.

                I need to give an argument for whether human beings abstract general principles from particular instances?

                Under your definition, “X is good” is meaningless. “Good” is not a property of an object, but rather is a description of the relationship the object has with some standard (that must be named). Objects aren’t “good”, under this definition, any more than they are “close” or “east”.

                The standard would be the object’s nature. So, you are correct that the goodness of X describes the relationship that X has with its nature, specifically the degree to which it exemplifies its nature in reality. And an Aristotelian would say that the nature is imminent within the particular being in question.

                You’re simply arguing by assertion. Bouncing is not part of the essential nature of a ball.

                No, I’m just giving an example of a particular X that fails to exemplify its X nature due to external obstructions, internal defects, and so on.

                If two things have the same nature, then they are the same thing.

                No, dog X and dog Y are both dogs, but they are different dogs.

                You’re equivocating as to whether “nature” refers to a particular property of something, or the totality of its properties.

                I am not. I have said that not all of the properties of X are essential properties. There are essential properties and accidental properties, to use Aristotelian terms.

                If we’re allowed to introduce non-essential properties, then we can say that some balls are red, so all non-red balls are non actualizing the nature of balls.

                How so? Redness is not part of the essence of being a ball. Having a color would be part of the essence of being a ball, simply by virtue of being a physical object, and not specifically by virtue of being a ball per se. So, being a non-red ball does not have anything to do with actualizing the nature of a ball, as long as it is still a color of some kind.

                In fact, we can say since some balls don’t bounce, balls that do bounce are not actualizing the nature of balls. Also, “nature” is not transferable from a category to things in that category. Saying “That’s a ball, it’s the nature of balls to bounce, therefore it’s the nature of that to bounce” is a fallacy.

                That’s a good point. A baseball does not bounce, and yet is a ball. So, a bouncing ball was a bad example. Let’s stick to knives, then. The nature of a knife is to cut, which means that a knife that does not cut is not actualizing the nature of knives as much as a knife that does cut. I hope that helps.

                We have ways of detecting movement. We have ways of detecting change. We have ways of detecting time. These are not concepts that have clear meaning and come from empirical data. Your concepts, however, have no meaning except in terms of each other, and are based on no empirical data.

                First, tell me how you detect movement without using the concept of change. How are the “ways” that you have to detect change and movement effective? How do you know when they are successful and when they fail? And remember, no circular definitions allowed!

                Second, you keep saying that they are “based on no empirical data” when you should say that it is based upon insufficient empirical evidence, perhaps. We have already agreed that it makes sense to talk about a good knife as meaning a knife that maximizes its nature to cut things. How did you get to that idea?

                Oh, please. Knives do not “strive” to be sharp.

                Fair enough. A knife is an artifact that gets its purpose from a human creator, and thus it would make more sense to say that a human artisan strives to make the knife sharp, which he or she would then count as a good knife. The striving, then, would reside in the human being, and not in the artifact that is made by the human being, which gets its teleology in a secondary way.

                Wow. You just refuse to accept that you’re wrong, don’t you? Evolution is a non-teleological process. If you want to say that life on Earth is not due to evolution, that doesn’t change the fact that evolution is non-teleological (and it shows even more divorced from reality).

                I agree that evolution itself has no purpose. It is just what happens when you have heritability of traits, variability of traits, and limited resources (or some other selection pressure). In that way, it is like the Invisible Hand of the Market, which is not anything in itself, but is just a way of describing what happens to prices when selfish individuals compete in the marketplace. However, it does not follow that the individuals are not pursuing particular ends, whether they are consciously aware of them, or not. Furthermore, just as the Invisible Hand is only possible because of the teleological activity of economic agents, evolution is only possible because of the teleological activity of biological organisms operating in nature.

                No, because anyone can infer whatever they want.

                Exactly.

                AGAIN, it’s quite annoying you to be telling me what my reasoning is. It’s just offensive that not only are you promoting a pro-oppression philosophy, but you’re engaging in sophistry to try to claim that evolution is just as bad.

                I am not saying that evolution is as bad. I am saying that evolution is as good. I am not saying that we should not teach evolution. We should teach it. My point is that the fact that it can be misused by some people to harm others is not a good reason to not teach it, and similarly, just because someone can abuse natural law theories to harm others is no good reason to reject it. There are liberal humanist thinkers who draw upon Aristotelian concepts in their ethical theories, such as Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, Hilary Putnam, and so on, which mean that Catholics do not have a monopoly on it.

                Either you are completely clueless as to what such basic terms as “ad hominem” means, or you’re just being dishonest.

                Sorry. When you said that you had to “question my morality”, I thought that you were implying that I was an immoral person for having sympathy for Aristotelian principles. If that was not an attack upon my character and ethics, then there was no ad hominem.

                No, it can’t.

                It can, and it has. Whether it was justified or not, is another issue. Perhaps you can say that a true understanding of evolution would never lead to social Darwinism, and yet the notion that human society would be better if unfit individuals were eliminated to improve the overall fitness of the remaining human beings is not something utterly divorced from evolutionary principles. Artificial selection happens, and even Darwin described it as parasitic upon natural selection. If people can manipulate dogs to get the kind of species they want, then why not do the same to humans? Perhaps some sick individuals would look upon eugenics as a form of artificial selection?

                Even if it teaching it were to lead to bad outcomes, the fact remains that it is a scientific theory, and bad outcomes do not falsify evolutionary theory. What you are presenting is a moral claim, and moral claims are falsified by bad outcomes.

                First, “bad” does not necessarily mean “immoral”. Morality only comes into play with conscious beings with intellect to discern the right action and the will to implement it. As such, animals cannot be moral, and neither can children, for example. So, a bad outcome for scientific theory would be a falsification of it, because it would no longer serve its purpose of being a true representation of reality.

                Second, I am pretty sure that I can come up with a bad outcome for any moral claim. “Do not lie”. What about if the Nazis are at your door, looking for Jews. “Do not kill.” What if someone is threatening your family and the only way to save them is to kill the perpetrator? I think that morality is a bit more complicated than that. And didn’t you say earlier that this was a “naïve” attitude to falsification?

                First, you’re equivocating between “ought” as in “what we should do” and “ought” as in “what we expect”.

                There is no equivocation. They are related. They both have to do with the future, which does not exist yet, and how what is actually happening in the present directs something towards a particular outcome in the future. It is that directedness that grounds the “ought” in both cases. An Aristotelian would argue that the directedness towards a particular outcome(s) simply is the final cause that is part of what an essence is supposed to be.

                Secondly, this shows that “ought” affect what we believe. It doesn’t show that “ought” affects what is, and it most certainly does not show that what is affects “ought”.

                Why ought our theories be consistent, if consistency had nothing to do with how reality actually operated? In other words, how can our values work unless they track the facts somehow?

    • gbjames
      Posted August 1, 2012 at 5:22 am | Permalink

      It is the nature of some ideas to be bat-shit crazy. This one seems to be actualizing itself rather well.

  28. Posted July 31, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    Errantists rationalize the Buy-bull like inerrantists do. They’d rationalize about the Isaiah verses, I think.
    I query haughty John Haught, what is the good metaphor for those verses that you claim reveal God’s message of hope all through the Tanakh and the Christian Testament that counts more,you claim, in evading to answer their perverse morality? What perverse tendentiousness! So much for advanced theology!

  29. Posted July 31, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    Aquinas reifies those degrees of being and perfections as God in his fourth way-suggestion.Michael Scriven in “Primary Philosophy [ Read the section on God!],”leaves it to us readers to answer that silly ontological argument!
    Aquinas’ superfluity argument overwhelms his five failed ways- suggestions!Theism boomerangs!

  30. Rikki_Tikki_Taalik
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    *shrugs* Soooo … evil ain’t a real thing. Ok, I ain’t all that sophistimicated when it comes to the real “deepities” of philiosophy. All I can work out is if he (the Yahwenator or whomever) is all omni-omni-omni, and evil isn’t a real thing, then it’s a consequence. A consequence of the universe that the omni-omni-omni created, planting the ultimate responsibility firmly in his lap. If he didn’t want it that way it wouldn’t be so.

  31. jeffery
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    I remember reading Rabbi Kutchner’s book, “Why Bad Things Happen To Good People” years ago, hoping to find some kind of insight. I was appalled to see the book end up explaining nothing, with his whiny conclusion being, “There’s just some things that God seems to have no control over.”
    Until the majority of people actually learn to THINK, religion will continue to do their thinking for them. The “problem” of evil is just another example of how the “hypothesis” of religion simply doesn’t pan out when subjected to scrutiny; free will is another: without it, Eve had no choice but to eat of the “apple” (or whatever), rendering Christ’s “blood-atonement” meaningless. This is the reason that fundamentalist Christians oppose evolutionary theory so fervently: no Garden of Eden; no Eve- no Eve, no eating of the apple; no apple, no “original sin”. They are thus helplessly bound to defend the literal truth of the “Babble”.

  32. Posted July 31, 2012 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    Evil is a value judgement, not a force of nature or a physical attribute, so it doesn’t exist in the same way as ‘things’ do.

    So the theology here, amounts to something like: God is perfect. God creates x, but x is not perfect, because it is a limited creation. The limitation, or lack, is where suffering comes in.

    Evil is not, in this sense, part of the created thing, so God is no responsible for creating it. If I build an excellent hammer, it is not my fault that it does not make a good screwdriver. The hammer is not evil, even if my lack of a screwdriver causes me to suffer. The suffering, or evil, comes from lacking something.

    The blind example is only problematic if you view blindness as a defect… you make a value judgement.

    • Posted July 31, 2012 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

      I should’ve read farther. I made a similar point about evil upthread a bit.

      It’s important to note that the theology outlined in your second and third paragraphs still doesn’t solve the Epicurean trilemma.

      • Posted August 1, 2012 at 1:31 am | Permalink

        The problem there, is the assumption that being all good means eliminating suffering. The standard theological answer is that suffering, however excessive it might seem to us, is necessary for god’s project.

        So, since suffering is a condition of limited existence and limited existence is part of god’s project, then the problem of evil, is a problem of definition and limited perspective.

        Most would find this answer unsatisfying, but the problem of suffering is just as problematic for the atheist. If one were to put suffering and joy on scales… the suffering in most people’s lives outweighs the joy significantly. Suicide becomes the rational option.

        Of course, we go on largely because of irrational evolved survival instincts.

        So it goes.

        • truthspeaker
          Posted August 1, 2012 at 4:46 am | Permalink

          “Most would find this answer unsatisfying, but the problem of suffering is just as problematic for the atheist.”

          It’s not a problem for us at all. We don’t expect the universe to be “good”. Suffering is what you would expect in a universe that was not designed and that has no feelings or goals.

          • Posted August 1, 2012 at 5:26 am | Permalink

            There is a difference between expecting suffering and embracing suffering. If one reads the old testament…. I’m will to bet most would expect suffering as well.

        • gbjames
          Posted August 1, 2012 at 5:12 am | Permalink

          “Suicide becomes the rational option.”

          Yes it does. Which is why many of us advocate for the rights of terminally ill people to end their suffering against the fierce resistance of the ever-morally-challenged religious establishment.

        • raven
          Posted August 1, 2012 at 8:03 am | Permalink

          Most would find this answer unsatisfying, but the problem of suffering is just as problematic for the atheist.

          No it isn’t. Stuff happens. The universe looks exactly like it would if there is no god and no supernatural plan.

          If one were to put suffering and joy on scales… the suffering in most people’s lives outweighs the joy significantly. Suicide becomes the rational option.

          This is a wildly inaccurate statement. Most of the time, I enjoy my life a lot. I wouldn’t want to live forever but a few hundred years would be necessary to do everything on my list. It’s the same for everyone I know.

          Suicide is an option for anyone. We don’t take that option very often because we have better things to do.

          • Posted August 1, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

            Anecdotal evidence. Most people don’t have your standard of living.

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted August 2, 2012 at 1:14 am | Permalink

              What do you know of Raven’s standard of living? Irrelevant anyway.

              Most people, even in the most wretched circumstances, seem to find something to make life worth while. Since the alternative is – nothingness.

              (Having said that, if someone, say terminally ill, decides they would rather end their life at that point rather than have a miserable ending in agony, then it is their absolute right to do so and anyone who tries to prevent them for (usually) religious reasons should end up burning forever in Hell).

          • truthspeaker
            Posted August 2, 2012 at 10:30 am | Permalink

            I do, too, but I’m lucky enough to be a white male born to a middle class family in a relatively free, industrialized country.

            But we’re talking about how to explain suffering, not how to deal with it. Those are two entirely different questions.

        • Gary W
          Posted August 1, 2012 at 11:02 am | Permalink

          The problem there, is the assumption that being all good means eliminating suffering. The standard theological answer is that suffering, however excessive it might seem to us, is necessary for god’s project.

          Then why did God create that “project?” Why didn’t he create a project that does not involve suffering instead? You’re not addressing the basic problem of reconciling evil with a God of love, you’re just pushing it back a step.

          Most would find this answer unsatisfying, but the problem of suffering is just as problematic for the atheist. If one were to put suffering and joy on scales… the suffering in most people’s lives outweighs the joy significantly. Suicide becomes the rational option.

          I don’t know you think you can possibly know that “the suffering in most people’s lives outweighs the joy significantly.” Even if that premise were true, your conclusion doesn’t follow anyway. People may prefer to live even if their life involves more suffering than joy.

          • Posted August 1, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

            I suppose if you are a masochist, but otherwise, it is not rational.

        • Posted August 1, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

          No, being all good would entail eliminating suffering where a ten year old child would eliminate the suffering were she present. Since this doesn’t happen there is no reasonably powerful or all good god, because there’s nothing that answers to the even weaker aforementioned conception.

          (Scriven’s argument.)

          • Posted August 1, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

            ‘Suffering’ is often necessary for growth, which is why people go to the gym, but also hate going to the gym. The easiest way to eliminate suffering is to kill the patient.

            But easy is not always… good.

    • RF
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

      The point is to show that Christianity doesn’t make sense. Christianity says that evil is an objective quality, not simply a “value judgment”. And your hammer analogy does not address the issue at all.

      • Posted August 1, 2012 at 1:36 am | Permalink

        Actually in theology, the word to use is ‘absolute’, not ‘objective’. And they are quite different.

    • Gary W
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

      So the theology here, amounts to something like: God is perfect. God creates x, but x is not perfect, because it is a limited creation. The limitation, or lack, is where suffering comes in. Evil is not, in this sense, part of the created thing, so God is no responsible for creating it.

      Then we may define evil as the suffering caused by the limitation in the thing God created. He is responsible for that evil, just as he would be if it was defined to be part of the created thing.

      • Posted August 1, 2012 at 1:46 am | Permalink

        You may choose to hold him ultimately ‘responsible’, but the way the word is being used in the theological sense, is that of a proximate cause. God did not create evil, God created limited things for a purpose. Suffering results from those limitations, but the theological point is that god did not create suffering, did not create evil, but rather suffering and evil are a function of the way limited things exist and is part of how they grow and develop.

        The other thing to remember is that in most religious traditions it is the soul or spirit, not the body, which has importance. The soul is the important thing to preserve, the body is just a vessel. The suffering of the body is so temporary in the scheme of eternity, it is irrelevant.

        • truthspeaker
          Posted August 1, 2012 at 4:47 am | Permalink

          “Joe
          Posted August 1, 2012 at 1:46 am | Permalink

          You may choose to hold him ultimately ‘responsible’, but the way the word is being used in the theological sense, is that of a proximate cause. God did not create evil, God created limited things for a purpose. Suffering results from those limitations…”

          That’s equivalent to saying God created suffering.

          • Posted August 1, 2012 at 5:23 am | Permalink

            “That’s equivalent to saying God created suffering.”

            No, it is really not. You are equivocating proximate cause with ultimate cause.

            But of course, this brings up the entire issue of ‘freewill’ and the nature of causation, neither of which, science or philosophy, have a firm grip on.

            • truthspeaker
              Posted August 1, 2012 at 6:42 am | Permalink

              If I build a structure in my yard, and as a result of my changes, my neighbor’s basement floods the next time it rains, then I am just as responsible for his basement flooding as I would have been if I deliberately set out to flood his basement.

              God supposedly created all of existence. If he created it in such a way that suffering would result, then he is responsible for suffering.

            • Iain Walker
              Posted August 1, 2012 at 9:13 am | Permalink

              “You are equivocating proximate cause with ultimate cause.”

              The point surely is that as far as responsibility for a state of affairs goes, this is a distinction without a difference. That’s not equivocation. To create a state of affairs in which suffering is an inevitable and predictable consequence is to cause or create that suffering, suffering for which one is then responsible. If I lock a bunch of people in a railway wagon without food or water and send them on a very long journey, then I am nevertheless responsible for their hunger and thirst, even if I am only the ultimate and not the proximate cause of it. One wonders how many war crimes trials would have resulted in acquittal if this ultimate/proximate distinction were applied in international law as rigidly as practitioners of theodicy would like to apply it to God.

              • Another Matt
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

                There’s a “Concepts of Law 101″ problem along these lines.

                Three men go out in the desert on a long trip, without any phone access – call them Alan, Bob, and Clyde. Alan and Bob hate Clyde, and independently plot to murder him when he goes on a side-trip alone. Minutes before Clyde leaves, Alan puts a fast-acting, untreatable poison in Clyde’s canteen. Theoretically, when he gets thirsty, he’ll drink, then collapse and die on the spot.

                But Bob, unaware of Alan’s plan, has another idea. After Alan leaves Clyde’s tent, Bob sneaks in, empties the poisoned water out of Clyde’s canteen, and replaces it with sand. They then get away before Clyde comes to fetch his “water.”

                Inevitably, Clyde dies of dehydration.

                Who is guilty of murder? Who is guilty of attempted murder?

                (wording from here:
                http://forums.court-records.net/viewtopic.php?f=18&t=17953&sid=afc63b25c8f6694afaee44fb9048c003 )

              • Posted August 1, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

                It wasn’t inevitable, at least in most christian traditions. Suffering only entered the world after the fall. With freewill, with choice, comes responsibility for those choices.

                This is the essential nature of freewill.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted August 2, 2012 at 12:00 am | Permalink

                @ Another Matt:

                ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ – Agatha Christie used an idea very similar to your problem. All were guilty of conspiracy, but impossible to say who actually killed the victim.

        • dguller
          Posted August 1, 2012 at 6:28 am | Permalink

          I can agree that evil is not an actual reality, but still hold God responsible.

          Just because God did not create evil, because evil is not an actual reality, he still created the arrangement of actual reality wherein beings are unable to actualize their natures and achieve fulfillment and flourishing, and thus is responsible for the pain and suffering in the world. For example, he may not have created the hole, because the hole is just empty space, he arranged the surrounding matter in such a way that someone could fall into the hole, and get physically injured.

          The only response that is even remotely plausible is to emphasize the idea that what God ought to do is incoherent from a classical theist standpoint. To say that X ought to do A implies (a) that X has not already done A, and (b) that A is a potentiality of X. The problem is with (b), because God is supposed to be Pure Act, and have no potentiality whatsoever, and without potentiality, there can be no ought, there is only is. So, it makes no sense to say that God ought to have done other than he did.

          Of course, that leads to other problems, such as compromising God’s voluntary willing, how to make sense of divine simplicity, the possibility of answering prayers, and so on.

          • Gary W
            Posted August 1, 2012 at 10:31 am | Permalink

            The only response that is even remotely plausible is to emphasize the idea that what God ought to do is incoherent from a classical theist standpoint. To say that X ought to do A implies (a) that X has not already done A, and (b) that A is a potentiality of X. The problem is with (b), because God is supposed to be Pure Act, and have no potentiality whatsoever, and without potentiality, there can be no ought, there is only is. So, it makes no sense to say that God ought to have done other than he did.

            Either God can choose how to act or he cannot. If he can choose how to act, then we can certainly say he ought to have chosen differently than he did. If he cannot choose how to act then he is nothing like God as conceived by Christianity or any other traditional form of theism. Indeed, if he cannot choose but is just acting in accordance with some set of rules of principles that he is powerless to defy, then it’s hard to see how he is meaningfully different from a natural process.

            • dguller
              Posted August 1, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

              Gary:

              Either God can choose how to act or he cannot. If he can choose how to act, then we can certainly say he ought to have chosen differently than he did. If he cannot choose how to act then he is nothing like God as conceived by Christianity or any other traditional form of theism. Indeed, if he cannot choose but is just acting in accordance with some set of rules of principles that he is powerless to defy, then it’s hard to see how he is meaningfully different from a natural process.

              I agree, which is why I explicitly mentioned it as one of the problems.

              If God necessarily knows the good, because he is the good, and if the will necessarily chooses what the intellect perceives to be good, then God necessarily chooses the good. And if God necessarily chooses anything, then he cannot be considered free.

              The only conceivable response is the Spinoza solution, which is that X is free if X chooses independent of external constraint. With God, there is no external constraint, and so even if he chooses out of the necessity of his nature, he is still considered free. I’m not entirely satisfied with that solution, because I think that even internal compulsion compromises the traditional conceptual of free will. After all, a brain tumour is internal to myself, and yet can force my will to choose bizarre behaviors.

              • Gary W
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

                Yes, if actions are dictated by a constraint, the actions are not rendered free simply because the constraint is “internal” rather than “external.” Spinoza can call them “free” if he wants to, but he is then using the word in a radically different sense than its ordinary meaning. Much of what is claimed to be intellectually-sophisticated theology rests on this kind of abuse of language.

              • dguller
                Posted August 2, 2012 at 5:23 am | Permalink

                Right.

        • Gary W
          Posted August 1, 2012 at 10:22 am | Permalink

          You may choose to hold him ultimately ‘responsible’, but the way the word is being used in the theological sense, is that of a proximate cause.

          I don’t care how you’re using the word in a theological sense. In the conventional sense of responsibility, given the premises that God chooses how to act and is aware of the consequences of his acts, he is responsible for the suffering caused by his acts whether the cause is proximate or ultimate. If God’s creations suffer because of a limitation in his design, then God is responsible for that suffering.

        • Gary W
          Posted August 1, 2012 at 10:48 am | Permalink

          The other thing to remember is that in most religious traditions it is the soul or spirit, not the body, which has importance. The soul is the important thing to preserve, the body is just a vessel. The suffering of the body is so temporary in the scheme of eternity, it is irrelevant.

          Then if the suffering of the body is irrelevant, why is it wrong to cause suffering of the body?

          • Posted August 1, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

            Suffering is irrelevant… relative the to importance of the immortal soul.

            In theology, you have
            what god wills – garden of eden
            what god allows – freewill
            what god asks – obedience

            Causing the suffering of others is bad for the soul… if it violates the third one.

            There are essentially two types of evil here, the evil created by human limitation, and the evil created by human choice to disobey the will of god.

            I should note at this point, that christian theology is not some monolithic thing. Evil is variously defined in different theologies.

            • Gary W
              Posted August 1, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

              Suffering is irrelevant… relative the to importance of the immortal soul. … Causing the suffering of others is bad for the soul… if it violates the third one.

              Huh? How can suffering be “irrelevant relative to the importance of the immortal soul” if suffering is “bad for the soul?”

              • Posted August 1, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

                There are different kinds of suffering.

                Suffering caused by alienation from god, or the limitations of the human condition.

                Suffering caused by wrong choices made by other humans.

                Suffering can even be a good thing, as it can promote ‘spiritual growth’.

              • gbjames
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

                “Suffering caused by alienation from god”

                Believe me, Joe. This does not exist.

              • Gary W
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

                I don’t know how you think that resolves the conflict I just pointed out. Are you now saying that suffering is bad for the soul only when it is inflicted by another person, and not when it is inflicted by God? If so, why?

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted August 2, 2012 at 1:01 am | Permalink

                @Gary W

                “Are you now saying that suffering is bad for the soul only when it is inflicted by another person, and not when it is inflicted by God? If so, why?”

                Oooh! Ooooh! OoooH! I know that one. “Because nothing God does can be bad”!

                There. Am I a sophistamacated theologican? Do I win the Templeton Prize?

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted August 2, 2012 at 12:46 am | Permalink

              “Suffering is irrelevant… relative the to importance of the immortal soul.”

              I call BS on that. Since the immortal soul does not exist, anything at all, even the welfare of a tapeworm, has to outrank it.

              More practically, your belief in an immortal soul does NOT legitimise you to impose suffering on anybody who desn’t.

  33. RF
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    All of these fancy arguments distract from the central issue, which is that Christianity claims that God loves us. Implicit in that claim is that the statement “God loves us” conveys a meaningful, comprehensible, and observable concept. This is a central premise in Christianity. Saying “God’s ways are mysterious” contradicts that central premise of Christianity. Saying “God creates a universe that looks the same as one in which He does not love us to preserve our free will” contradicts that central premise. Saying “God plays word games to get out of doing anything about our suffering” contradicts this central premise. It doesn’t MATTER whether we characterize it as “God allows us to suffer” or “God allows an absence of goodness” or “God doesn’t undebadify the world”; all of them are inconsistent with this central premise of Christianity. If any being other than God claimed to love us, but ignored our suffering on the basis that suffering is defined only negatively in terms of the absence of something else, we would reject the assertion that that person loves us. It is inescapable that when used in conjunction with God, the word “love” has a meaning that is entirely different from its normal meaning, and we are left with simply handwaving as to what, exactly, this new concept consists of.

    The central issue is this: is there any comprehensible manner in which we can describe God as positively intervening in our lives? Apparently, one of the Aurora shooting victims had a channel in her brain that saved her life. I have no idea whether this actually happened, but say for the sake of argument it did. Can we describe this as the work of God? If so, we are saying that one of the characteristics of God is that He intervenes to save people’s lives. So why did He not intervene to save the other people’s lives? Any explanation for why God did not intervene in one case must explain why He did intervene in another, and vice versa. If we simply say that God intervenes sometimes, and not others, then we are not making any meaningful statement about God.

    • Veroxitatis
      Posted August 1, 2012 at 1:05 am | Permalink

      I think you ascribe too many loving attributes and potentialities to this God. What the Bible says is “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

    • raven
      Posted August 1, 2012 at 8:06 am | Permalink

      All of these fancy arguments distract from the central issue, which is that Christianity claims that God loves us.

      Depends on the cult.

      The fundies usually say, “Jesus loves us and hates you.”

      Xians never agree on anything.

  34. MM
    Posted August 1, 2012 at 2:17 am | Permalink

    So god is not responsible for “good” as “good” does not exist:

    The good in good enjoyed not an existent entity. It is not identifiable substance or positive quality.

    For God, as I’ve argued, is the cause of the being of all that is real apart from himself, and the good in good enjoyed suffered is not something with being, not something actual, and therefore, not something created by him. . .

    and more precisely:

    There shall in that time be rumors of things going astray, erm, and there shall be a great confusion as to where things really are, and nobody will really know where lieth those little things with the sort of raffia-work base, that has an attachment. At that time, a friend shall lose his friend’s hammer, and the young shall not know where lieth the things possessed by their fathers that their fathers put there only just the night before, about eight o’clock.

  35. eric
    Posted August 1, 2012 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    The badness in a diseased cat is nothing real in the cat.

    When philosophers don’t get QM, I’m willing to give them a pass. Its both conceptually difficult and relatively new (being only about 100 years old). But there is really no excuse for not getting the germ theory of disease.

    I’m also having a difficult time wondering how he did not see the ridiculousness of his principle as applied to other natural evils. An avalanche is an absence of something? What’s a tsunami, absence of dry? Lava sweeping over a village is absence of what, lack-of-lava?

    • Another Matt
      Posted August 1, 2012 at 7:05 am | Permalink

      Maybe it’s the absence of lava-levies?

  36. Iain Walker
    Posted August 1, 2012 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    The most obvious rejoinder to Davies is that if God creates things so that they have something lacking, then God causes, and is responsible for, the state of affairs that includes that lack. If a property developer put up a shoddily built tenement where things were constantly breaking and falling in and injuring the tenants, I doubt that anyone – even Davies – would be impressed by the defence that the structural faults were not an “identifiable substance or positive quality” and so were not caused by the developer.

  37. Posted August 1, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    I have to admit dguller is at least trying to deal with Aristotelians on their own terms. Kudos to him.

    From what I know he’s correct and it’s difficult to do what he wants to do. Deluded believers who are intelligent are difficult to deal with because of this.

    The problem is that it really shouldn’t require all of this theological gerrymandering to defend a good omnipotent God. Sometimes we just have to look at the empirical evidence and say “look, these language games have no basis in reality.” That’s why the Aristotle/Aquinas views fell into derision and rightly so. It was the rise of modern science that did it. And there is no going back now.

    It reminds me of a different thread where dguller defended the idea of a trickster god:

    http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2010/01/based-on-this-argument-alone-best-any.html

    It lasted 238 comments and he did a wonderful! job

    He’s indefatiguable! I’m glad he’s on our side.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted August 1, 2012 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      Dealing with Aristotleans on their own terms is no more commendable than dealing with phrenologists on their own terms.

      • Posted August 1, 2012 at 10:24 am | Permalink

        I see your point and I raise you one. Let’s not bother dealing with Christian theology at all.
        ;-)

    • dguller
      Posted August 1, 2012 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      John:

      I have to admit dguller is at least trying to deal with Aristotelians on their own terms. Kudos to him.

      Thanks, John. Nice to see you again.

      From what I know he’s correct and it’s difficult to do what he wants to do. Deluded believers who are intelligent are difficult to deal with because of this.

      I’ve actually softened my approach to these issues, especially after reading Feser’s books. I may disagree with many of his points, and I remain an atheist, but I cannot say that all religious believers are deluded idiots, because some of the philosophical and theological discussions are not as closed as I once thought. There are deep principles involved that reasonable people can disagree about, because intuitions vary, and there are good reasons on either side. And there are proponents on both sides that are fully committed to their viewpoints, which could be construed as being “deluded”, but that is irrelevant. All that matters is the reasons and evidence.

      The problem is that it really shouldn’t require all of this theological gerrymandering to defend a good omnipotent God. Sometimes we just have to look at the empirical evidence and say “look, these language games have no basis in reality.” That’s why the Aristotle/Aquinas views fell into derision and rightly so. It was the rise of modern science that did it. And there is no going back now.

      First, derision is not refutation. Atheists were derided for centuries, and that does not necessarily imply the falsify of atheism.

      Second, the amount of work that goes into proving a proposition is not indicative of its falsehood. How much work did it take to find the Higg’s boson? Does that mean that it is false? And how much work did it take to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem? Is it thereby false?

      Third, you need a framework to interpret empirical evidence, and thus there are always metaphysical principles involved in empirical inferences, even if they are covert. The question is which metaphysical principles make the most sense, especially to account for scientific inquiry. I actually think that, for the most part, Thomist natural philosophy makes quite a bit of sense.

      It reminds me of a different thread where dguller defended the idea of a trickster god

      Well, that was in my naïve time. I can now see that the possibility of a trickster god depends upon the framework. From a Thomist framework, such a thing is impossible and incoherent, but that depends upon justifying that framework. Refuting deism, and especially theism, is much more difficult than I once thought.

      • Gary W
        Posted August 1, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

        I may disagree with many of his points, and I remain an atheist, but I cannot say that all religious believers are deluded idiots, because some of the philosophical and theological discussions are not as closed as I once thought. There are deep principles involved that reasonable people can disagree about, because intuitions vary, and there are good reasons on either side.

        “Deluded idiot” is a bit strong, but I would certainly say that belief in any of the traditional theistic religions is irrational and foolish. I do not accept that such belief rests on principles that are reasonable or that there are “good reasons” to hold. The fundamental basis for rejecting religion is that there’s no evidence that its basic claims are true. Internal contradictions such as the problem of evil are another reason to reject it.

        • dguller
          Posted August 1, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

          Gary:

          “Deluded idiot” is a bit strong, but I would certainly say that belief in any of the traditional theistic religions is irrational and foolish. I do not accept that such belief rests on principles that are reasonable or that there are “good reasons” to hold. The fundamental basis for rejecting religion is that there’s no evidence that its basic claims are true. Internal contradictions such as the problem of evil are another reason to reject it.

          The basic presupposition of Thomism, at least, which is the system that I’ve been reading about, is that through the study of the empirical world, which is where we all begin, we abstract metaphysical principles that imply realities beyond the empirical world. That is not necessarily an absurd concept, and actually is consistent with expanding what we consider to be real through studying the world.

          Some of the principles of Thomism are: that there is a difference between actual reality and potential reality, that individual substances are the basic ontological units, that each individual substance is a combination of actual being and potential being, that each individual substance has a specific nature that directs it towards the fulfillment of its final end, that the transition from potential being to actual being always involves an actual being, and so on. I don’t see these principles as intrinsically unreasonable or absurd, and they actually have both positive and negative justifications, which may or may not be compelling to either of us.

          Anyway, that’s a whole other matter.

          • Gary W
            Posted August 1, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

            The basic presupposition of Thomism, at least, which is the system that I’ve been reading about, is that through the study of the empirical world, which is where we all begin, we abstract metaphysical principles that imply realities beyond the empirical world. That is not necessarily an absurd concept, and actually is consistent with expanding what we consider to be real through studying the world.

            No, it’s not “absurd,” but unless there’s some reason to believe it’s true, it’s just an (unjustified) assumption. Of course, even if there are “realities beyond the empirical world,” that doesn’t mean there’s a God, let alone the particular Gods described by Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. So this assumption doesn’t get you anywhere in defending religion even if it’s true.

            Some of the principles of Thomism are: that there is a difference between actual reality and potential reality, that individual substances are the basic ontological units, that each individual substance is a combination of actual being and potential being, that each individual substance has a specific nature that directs it towards the fulfillment of its final end, that the transition from potential being to actual being always involves an actual being, and so on. I don’t see these principles as intrinsically unreasonable or absurd, and they actually have both positive and negative justifications, which may or may not be compelling to either of us.

            Before we’re in a position to decide whether they’re absurd, we have to know what they’re supposed to *mean*. The meaning of terms like “potential reality,” “individual substances” and “basic ontological units” is anything but clear. The elaborate use of neologisms to try and lend bad arguments an air of profundity and intellectual sophistication is another common rhetorical device of religious apologists.

            • dguller
              Posted August 1, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

              Gary:

              No, it’s not “absurd,” but unless there’s some reason to believe it’s true, it’s just an (unjustified) assumption. Of course, even if there are “realities beyond the empirical world,” that doesn’t mean there’s a God, let alone the particular Gods described by Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. So this assumption doesn’t get you anywhere in defending religion even if it’s true.

              First, if logic and reason dictate that it is true on the basis of inference from valid principles, then do you reject logic and reason, or the valid principles?

              Second, you are correct that those underlying assumptions that I mentioned do not get you to the traditional God of monotheistic religions. Not even close.

              Before we’re in a position to decide whether they’re absurd, we have to know what they’re supposed to *mean*. The meaning of terms like “potential reality,” “individual substances” and “basic ontological units” is anything but clear. The elaborate use of neologisms to try and lend bad arguments an air of profundity and intellectual sophistication is another common rhetorical device of religious apologists.

              “Potential reality” means what a particular being could do.

              “Individual substances” are things that are supposed to exist on their own, such as chairs, dogs, humans. In other words, they are not like colors, which need to be in something else to exist, e.g. paint, skin, hair. So, there are some things that must exist in something else (i.e. accidents, such as color), and there are some things that can exist in themselves (i.e. substances).

              There are definitions for all those terms with examples for them, if you look.

              • Gary W
                Posted August 1, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

                First, if logic and reason dictate that it is true on the basis of inference from valid principles, then do you reject logic and reason, or the valid principles?

                You haven’t shown that logic and reason dictate that it is true from valid principles. I don’t think you can do that. As I said, unless there’s some reason to believe that there are “realities beyond the empirical world,” it’s just an assumption.

                “Potential reality” means what a particular being could do.“Individual substances” are things that are supposed to exist on their own, such as chairs, dogs, humans. In other words, they are not like colors, which need to be in something else to exist, e.g. paint, skin, hair. So, there are some things that must exist in something else (i.e. accidents, such as color), and there are some things that can exist in themselves (i.e. substances). There are definitions for all those terms with examples for them, if you look.

                Your definitions just raise more questions, like what it means for something to exist “on its own.” But I’m not really interested in discussing arcane philosophical terms. I want to know why you think religious belief is reasonable, why you think there are “good reasons” to believe, for example, that the basic tenets of Christianity are true. Not a detailed treatise starting from first principle, but the basic argument you would make in defense of that proposition.

      • Posted August 1, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

        dguller, we don’t need to refute anything. The believer needs to offer a coherent definition of God, explain how such a being can create a universe in time, how it can interact with the world, and provide evidence for the same.

        Galileo actually refuted Aristotle’s conceptual metaphysics as much as one can reasonably expect.

        If all objects have potentially then why do all objects fall to the ground in a vacuum at the same rate? Galileo came up with a thought experiment whereby a string was tied from a smaller rock (with less potentiality) to a larger one (with greater potentiality) and asked whether that new object will fall faster because of its combined weight or slower because the smaller one would drag on the other one. There was no way to tell based on Aristotle’s views.

        Thus eventually ended Aristotelian metaphysics. No one had to argue against it at that point. It would eventually fall into the dustbin of history. Trying to resurrect it now is like resurrecting phrenology.

        People with views like Feser’s will die out with only a few followers, who will in turn die out with even less followers, and so on.

        • dguller
          Posted August 1, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

          John:

          If all objects have potentially then why do all objects fall to the ground in a vacuum at the same rate? Galileo came up with a thought experiment whereby a string was tied from a smaller rock (with less potentiality) to a larger one (with greater potentiality) and asked whether that new object will fall faster because of its combined weight or slower because the smaller one would drag on the other one. There was no way to tell based on Aristotle’s views.

          First, I don’t understand how Galileo’s thought experiment refutes the idea that beings have potentiality in them. All objects fall to the ground in a vacuum at the same rate, because of the absence of air resistance in a vacuum. An object being held at a height has the potential to fall to the ground. How does Galileo’s thought experiment refute that?

          Second, the size of an object is not indicative of the amount of potentiality. I don’t know where you got that idea.

          Third, refuting Aristotle’s physics does not refute his metaphysics, or even his philosophy of nature. It just refutes his scientific theories, which are no coextensive with his metaphysics or philosophy of nature, which are more general than particular scientific theories, although there is some back and forth, I suppose.

          Thus eventually ended Aristotelian metaphysics. No one had to argue against it at that point. It would eventually fall into the dustbin of history. Trying to resurrect it now is like resurrecting phrenology.

          If that thought experiment is what ended Aristotelian metaphysics, then it was rejected for a bad reason. There are plenty of criticisms of that metaphysics, but Galileo’s thought experiment shouldn’t be one of them. And I don’t think the comparison with phrenology is an apt one. Phrenology made specific predictions that were falsified, and the underlying theory had no empirical support. In fact, it made no sense whatsoever. I would argue that the majority of Aristotle’s metaphysics is necessary to understand any scientific theory, because it postulates the existence of individual substances that have specific natures and that interact in the material world by actualizing their underlying potentiality, and that predictions are possible on the basis of their underlying nature remaining consistent throughout their different changes over time. Sure, this framework was rejected, but the replacement was just a mess, and led to philosophical puzzles that remain with us to this day.

          • Posted August 1, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

            Aristotle’s metaphysics made specific predictions that were falsified by Galileo, and so the underlying theory had no empirical support.

            At first I thought you were explaining. Now I see you are defending. Gotta go, I know how indefatigable you are. Good luck in defending the indefensible.

            • dguller
              Posted August 1, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

              John:

              Aristotle’s metaphysics made specific predictions that were falsified by Galileo, and so the underlying theory had no empirical support.

              Sorry, but they weren’t. Like I said, refuting Aristotle’s physics does not necessarily refute his metaphysics. That would be like saying that refuting Darwinian evolution refutes quantum mechanics. The latter is more fundamental than the former, and its refutation involves different evidence and reasoning.

              Also, even if parts of Aristotle’s metaphysics were falsified by Galileo, that does not mean that the whole theory “had no empirical support”. Maybe it had insufficient empirical support, but Aristotle cites numerous empirical observations to justify his positions.

              At first I thought you were explaining. Now I see you are defending. Gotta go, I know how indefatigable you are. Good luck in defending the indefensible.

              I’m defending the parts that I agree with, am criticizing the parts that I disagree with, and am trying to do so on the strongest terms. And I’m just pointing out that your arguments don’t do the work that you claim they do. Other arguments are probably available to make the conclusions that you are trying to make, but you’d have to present them. Caricatures and straw men are no way to refute an opposing theory.

              And yeah, I am kinda tenacious. :)

              Take care, John.

          • Another Matt
            Posted August 1, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

            Very quickly — read Nelson Goodman’s Fact, Fiction, and Forecast. It’s probably the sanest treatment of dispositional properties and induction I’ve ever seen, and the problems he raises but doesn’t quite solve are excellent and interesting.

            Goodman is one of the more thoroughgoing nominalists (see “The Structure of Appearance”), but he agrees to set it down (to the extent he can) for FF&F.

            • Posted August 1, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

              A fair number of Goodman’s problems are pseudoproblems, created by excessive empiricism. A scientist (e.g. a geochemist) does not think emeralds are green (to fix the idea, in some sort of physicist sense of green) because he’s enumerated emeralds, but because she has a theory of the chemical composition of the gems and hence knows that these do not appreciably change under conditions in question.

              Further, and I haven’t done as much work on this, it seems that all the talk about dispositionals should be investigated in terms of how dispositions are actually handled in science, e.g. the perennial solubility examples should be investigated in light of physical chemistry of solutions, etc. For example, it looks to me (at first glance) like the solubility product eliminates the need for a counterfactual. (It also emphasizes that solubility is a relational property of very high airity, which might help later.)

              • Another Matt
                Posted August 2, 2012 at 8:54 am | Permalink

                I hadn’t noticed your reply until now.

                Goodman addresses your points in the fourth chapter. He’s saying in effect “we know the ‘grue problem’ is a pseudoproblem, but why?” In the fourth chapter he introduces an outline for his theory of projectibility of hypotheses, which includes the concept of “entrenchment” and also the importance of other, usually tacit, well-entrenched hypotheses like your “chemical composition” one.

                He leaves “entrenchment” more or less unanalyzed, as a function of the accumulated history of past empiricism, where “grue” and the like didn’t make it past the sieve. If he had gone further with it, I suspect it would have turned out something like Quine/Ullian’s “The Web of Belief.”

                About solubility product — I think it may eliminate the need for a counterfactual in most circumstances, but there are other deterministic questions, like: “At time T the salt was transformed (vaporized, etc.) by a nuclear explosion. Can ‘solubility’ have applied to that bit of salt in the first place, given that being dissolved was never in its possible future due to the explosion?”

  38. Posted August 2, 2012 at 3:21 am | Permalink

    Davies sounds like a Christian Scientist, that is, an Idealist: God is the only reality, all else is ideas in the Mind of God; God thinks only of Good, therefore evil is Error, i.e. non-existent.

    There was a Faith Healer from Deal
    Who said, “Although pain is not real,
    If I sit on a pin
    And it punctures my skin,
    I dislike what I fancy I feel.”

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted August 2, 2012 at 4:04 am | Permalink

      Nice one!

      Now maybe one of these sophistimacated philosophers can explain what it is about the nature of the Limerick verse form that makes it always actualize itself in frivolous verses?

  39. Iain Walker
    Posted August 3, 2012 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Reply to: Joe (August 1, 2012 at 3:16 pm)

    (Posted down here because the reply-indents in the actual thread seemed to have maxxed out).

    “It wasn’t inevitable, at least in most christian traditions. Suffering only entered the world after the fall.”

    That defence works only for YECs, not “most” Christian traditions. Any denomination that accepts the basic scientific picture of the history of life on earth has to accept that suffering predates whatever event they want to identify with “the Fall” (assuming, that is, if they don’t regard the concept of “the Fall” as a metaphor).

    And even then, palming responsibility for suffering off on Adam and Eve isn’t a remotely plausible option even for someone who believes that the Eden myth is historical. Either God introduces suffering into the world because he’s in a snit because he was disobeyed, or he sets things up so that if he is disobeyed, suffering enters the world automatically (which is pretty damn specific, so it’s hard to see how it might be unintentional, unless one wants to posit a God who is both incompetent and incredibly unlucky). So given the actual Garden of Eden story, God is responsible either way.

    “With freewill, with choice, comes responsibility for those choices.”

    Yeah. Tell that to the God of the Bible, the shirker.


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